By Joe Arruda
The blistering cold Northeast winds blew dozens of fans into Blake Arena as the beloved Springfield College men’s volleyball team returned home for the first match in ten days.
Blake Arena hadn’t seen a Springfield College (15-2) loss at home in what felt like an eternity, let alone a sweep. On Tuesday night, Rivier University (8-6) did just that.
Springfield started off on the wrong foot before the game even started. As the starters were announced, senior star Eli Irizarry Pares did not acknowledge his name being called. Younger Eli Gabriel stepped out, looking around the Arena for his brother. Concern shone on the face of Eli Gabriel as he saw the senior hitter sitting on the sideline with the Athletic Trainer, rubbing his left knee.
Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan later noted that Eli had injured his knee just before the match. He would not be able to play.
Freshman Braden Tam replaced Irizarry Pares on the court for the first set, and at first, he did well. Tam made an impact on the attack, and from behind the service line. The Pride held a 15-12 lead in the first set, and seemed confident. That would soon change. Rivier was able to find holes in the Springfield defense, and shut down the Pride attack.
The Raiders gained momentum, and did not take their foot off of the gas pedal.
In the second set, Rivier blocked their way to a 25-21 victory. The Pride struggled on the attack as they posted a .148 hitting percentage, while Rivier totaled 9.5 blocks on the match.
“This year I know I have a big responsibility on the defensive side and it was just good to come in and just do what I have to do. If I can be any help to this team, I know that’s my biggest impact, so it was just good to come in today and be consistent defensively,” said Dashaun Graham who led the Raiders with 7 block assists and a single solo block.
When Rivier and Springfield last matched up on Saturday, the hosting Raiders took the first set. They knew they could hang with the No. 1 team in the country.
“For us, we played at our place a couple days ago, and it felt like we were in the match most of the time. So I think coming in here we didn’t feel like we were down and out,” said Raiders head coach Craig Kolek.
Rivier took advantage of facing off against the Pride just three days prior to Tuesday’s matchup.
“We worked on some things at practice that really focused on what Springfield was doing on their side of the net,” said Kolek. “It started to come together probably about halfway through game one, and we just kind of stayed solid.”
In the third set, the Raiders completed the sweep with authority. The Springfield bench was uncharacteristically silent, with occasional encouragement from their injured star player. Rivier used all of the momentum from the first two sets to completely dominate the defending national champions, defeating them 25-14.
“We feel great, obviously. It’s great to beat just a really talented team,” said Kolek. “It’s still Springfield and Springfield’s still the best in the nation, so we needed to make sure we finished the game before we celebrated.”
Tuesday’s loss marks the first time Springfield College was swept in Blake Arena since 2014, where Concordia defeated them in the Morgan Invitational. But don’t worry, the Pride went on to defeat Juniata in the National Championship that year.
“They out-blocked us, they passed our serve better than they did Saturday, and once it got close we got rattled,” said Sullivan. “We just gotta regroup, put a plan together, and get after it.”
Springfield will return to Blake Arena on Friday night as they host a rematch against Vassar (8-4), who they defeated three sets to one in the Morgan Classic Championship.
Photo courtesy of Sam Leventhal