By Joe Arruda
For the first time in 700 days, Springfield College students and spectators trickled into Blake Arena to watch their top-ranked men’s volleyball team. The last time spectators were allowed to watch the men’s volleyball team in-person was on March 3, 2020, when the Pride swept St. John Fisher. On Tuesday night, fans dodged the residual snow leftover from the weekend’s nor’easter to witness a similar result – this one, a sweep of Elms College.
“So many windows have been closed during this (COVID) time, but this was an open invitation to have some fun,” Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan said.
It was a relatively large crowd that filled a majority of the bleachers despite the freezing temperatures – as close to a ‘normal’ environment as it has been since that March 2020 match. Tuesday featured an almost-exact replica of that starting lineup nearly two years ago.
Graduate student and setter, Matt Lilley, orchestrated the offense to a .478 hitting clip with his 30 assists. Lilley set up a balanced attack where five starters (all but himself and libero, Johjan Mussa Robles) tallied more than five kills, and none more than 10.
“We have some great hitters. So if I’m able to isolate them across the court and maybe move the middle around to open up some seams, I’m able to run the offense that I want and once we get the pass we need, I’m able to set whoever I want,” Lilley said. “I have 100% confidence that we’re going to get the kill if we do what we need to do.”
Those great hitters, highlighted by Nate Reynolds and Jarrett Anderson who tied for a match-high nine kills, got the job done. Liam York, coming off his career-best performance in which he led an undermanned roster to a five-set victory over No. 5 NYU on Wednesday with 29 kills, tallied eight on Tuesday.
Brennen Brandow and Chris Parker added six kills each.
While the starting lineup featured many of the same faces from the past several years, Springfield’s first practice this season with the entire team present came just two days ago on Sunday. With the Pride winning the first two sets by identical 25-15 scores, Sullivan would typically begin to make substitutions near the start of the third set. Tuesday, however, was different – the first substitutions were made with the Pride up 15-11 in the final set.
“We were trying to get some rhythm,” Sullivan said on letting the starters play together for most of the match. “So we’re just trying to get something going again.”
Chemistry building opportunities were something last year’s team lacked because of COVID protocols. This year, the team didn’t take its annual bonding trip to California for the second straight season, but they do have the ability to sit together in the dining hall or hang out in each other’s dorms. Still, the emphasis on chemistry is high on the list for Sullivan and the team.
“We’ve had this group since 2020,” Lilley said. “And we’re playing great. We just have to build our chemistry more and play some fluid volleyball and see how it goes.”
An early sense of chemistry came at the net, both offensively and defensively. In addition to the balanced attack the Pride out-blocked Elms, 6.5 to 1 in team blocks.
Before the final point – an ace from senior Stiven Topalli – the crowd in Blake Arena rose to its feet.
Stiven Topalli finishes the Springfield sweep with this ace! Pride win set three, 25-17.
FINAL: Springfield 3-0 Elms pic.twitter.com/slp3rNjhDz
— Joe Arruda (@joearruda9) February 2, 2022
A familiar clap sequence echoed throughout the arena, beginning with the team bench, ahead of Topalli’s serve. When Elms failed to return the ball, the entire team rose its arms victoriously. They turned to the fans, thanking them for coming out, and then exchanged waves with Elms.
“(It was a) crazy experience,” Lilley said following his fifth home-opener with the Pride. “It was nice to have familiar faces, there are a lot of faces I haven’t seen. So it was great to have people pack the stands and hopefully we’ll get more back on Friday.”
On Friday the Pride will host No. 3 Vassar in Blake Arena at 6 p.m. to open the International Volleyball Hall of Fame Morgan Classic.
Photo by Joe Arruda/The Student