By Joe Arruda
The Springfield College men’s volleyball team filed into Blake Arena on Monday morning and were greeted by a television in front of a pulled out section of the bleachers. The team, with a light-hearted persona, awaited their postseason fate – something that seems foreign after a two year drought.
In 2020, the team was poised to make a long tournament run before the tournament became an early casualty of COVID. In 2021, the Pride’s COVID-shortened schedule wasn’t enough to earn a bid.
But in 2022, selection day was a matter of who they would play and where.
And they didn’t have to wait long.
Minutes into the selection show, NCAA.com’s Will Haskett announced: “Our first host and first team to unveil – no surprise – it belongs to Springfield.”
“No surprise” is right.
Springfield’s men’s volleyball program has the most NCAA Championships in the nation. The Pride finished with the best record in Division III (26-1) while playing one of the most competitive schedules in the nation.
Behind its five AVCA All-Region selections announced Wednesday, including setter Matt Lilley, the Pride hit at a nation-leading .380 clip. Jarrett Anderson and Brennen Brandow finished at No. 12 and No. 22 in the country in hitting percentage, respectively. Anderson’s nation-leading .986 aces per set helped him to earn AVCA Northeast Player of the Year honors.
Johjan Mussa Robles and Nate Reynolds rounded out the five all-region honorees. Mussa Robles, in his sixth year playing for the Pride, is in the midst of his best season yet. A libero, Mussa Robles averages 2.90 digs per set, good for ninth-best in the nation. Reynolds sits at No. 8 in the nation with 1.09 blocks per set, is hitting at an impressive .487 clip and is second among all active college volleyball players with 396 career blocks.
Coach Charlie Sullivan earned AVCA Northeast Coach of the Year recognition for the second time since 2020 – when the award was in its inaugural year. Springfield is ranked fourth in aces per set (2.66) and sixth in both blocks per set (2.27) and opponent hitting percentage (.118).
But, as far as the postseason goes, Springfield will have to continue its success in Blake Arena – where the Pride are 14-0 this season – in order to add to its nation-best 11 National Championships.
The first opponent will be Penn State – Behrend at 4 p.m. on Friday in the tournament’s opening round. Behrend earned an automatic NCAA birth after winning the Allegheny Mountain Conference earlier this month. The Lions finished the regular season with a 22-7 record and have won 12 of their last 14 matches en route to the program’s first-ever NCAA bid. Springfield has won 13 in a row and lost just one set during that run.
The pod hosted at Springfield College features a second much-anticipated first round match as rival SUNY New Paltz (20-6) hosts Marymount (23-8) at 6 p.m. on Friday. Springfield’s rivalry with New Paltz is one with roots, but was reinvigorated when the Hawks knocked the Pride out of the 2019 NCAA Tournament in the Final Four.
That same year was the last time Springfield matched up with Marymount – a straight-set victory to open the 2019 Morgan Classic. Marymount earned an at-large bid after being swept by Rutgers-Newark in the Continental Volleyball Conference Championship on April 8.
Should Springfield and New Paltz both win, it would be the second time the two teams matched up this season – Springfield swept the Hawks at home on March 30. The second round is set to take place in Blake Arena on Saturday, April 16, at 6 p.m.
Springfield has played two of the other three top seeds in the 2022 tournament – Stevens and Rutgers-Newark. The Pride defeated Rutgers-Newark, 3-1, on Jan. 22 and later swept Stevens with an undermanned squad on Feb. 12. The Pride have not seen Carthage College, the defending national champions and the other top-four seed, this season. Carthage is the host site for the Final Four and the National Championship matches.
“Well, that was nice to get out of the way,” Sullivan said, addressing the team once the selection show finished.
Sure, there probably wasn’t a doubt that Springfield would earn a bid, but hearing the team’s name announced as the top overall seed justifiably excited the Pride. Still, with Sullivan’s guidance and veteran leadership from the team’s 10 upperclassmen, Springfield will take on the tournament one match at a time as they’ve been doing all season.
Photo: Joe Arruda/The Student