By Joe Arruda
Brennen Brandow collected a perfect dig as SUNY New Paltz served on match point of Saturday’s NCAA Quarterfinal match, sending the ball up and in the direction of setter Matt Lilley. Lilley, leaping in the air, set the ball behind his head to Jarrett Anderson running up the right side. Anderson levitated, cocked his left arm back, and fired a ball on a direct path towards New Paltz’s Kyle Shaffer across the court. Shaffer did what he could but the ball ricocheted off his outstretched right arm and was sent away into the bleachers.
Blake Arena erupted, Johjan Mussa Robles jumped around with glee and Springfield’s ticket was punched for the Final Four.
“I’m just grateful,” Mussa Robles said following the match. “I have been here for six years and we’ve had great teams, but this team is great on the court and off the court with each other, we have great relationships and we keep working on that. I’m just grateful, I’m just happy to be there with this group of guys.”
Senior Nate Reynolds added, “(This experience is) nothing I’ve experienced before. There’s nothing like playing in Blake Arena (…) I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.”
Despite a majority of the student body leaving campus for Easter weekend, a crowd still filled the bleachers in the Mecca. The spectators fed off the energy of the bench, the bench fed energy to the team on the court – it was a perfect ecosystem.
Unlike Springfield’s first round match Friday, the momentum wasn’t all there from the start. The Pride held control but couldn’t seem to pull away in a tight first set. After a wild rally consisted of a rocket deflecting off Mussa Robles and a spectacular set from Lilley as the ball steamed down off the Blake Arena rafters, Brandow handled the set and sent a perfect ball untouched to the back corner of the court. That sequence, plus another kill from Anderson, gave Springfield a 19-16 lead – its largest of the set to that point.
Later, strong service pressure from first-year Giancarlo Carrion put Springfield in position to win set one, 25-19.
The second set began almost identical to the first. Brandow opened it up with a kill, but New Paltz would not go away. Eventually, after six tied scores and two lead changes, a block from Lilley gave the Pride a second 25-19 set win. That momentum carried into the third when back-to-back kills late in the set from Anderson and Liam York pushed the Pride up 21-14 before Anderson eventually finished the match.
“We’ve been working a lot on just playing together and taking advantage of opportunities, so I think these guys are really hungry to get back to this spot. I think the key was that we’re just so grateful to be here and they just took advantage of it,” Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan said.
Springfield completed its 11th straight win via sweep (two of which came against New Paltz) with a 25-20 win in the clincher.
“They deserve (it),” New Paltz head coach Radu Petrus said following the match. “(They have) better potential and with the home game, with a lot of people, (they) just were dominant again. I say good luck to Springfield, hopefully they can win trophy from Carthage.”
The Pride are on a roll, after hitting at an impressive .556 clip that was highlighted by 12 kills from Brandow (.471) and 11 from Anderson (.529). Defensively, Springfield held New Paltz to a minute .176 hitting clip.
“We just kept our foot on the gas no matter what,” Reynolds said. “If we made a mistake, we all came together and just went to the next ball, next play and just forgot about it.”
Carthage University, the host site of the Final Four and the National Championship, is the defending national champion. Springfield will face Stevens in Friday’s semifinal, a team they swept earlier in the season with an undermanned roster.
“Going forward, I’ve had the midwest teams in my poll above us the whole year, so we know we’re behind the eight ball right now,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to get to work.”