By Joe Arruda
No. 2 Springfield College (19-2) played host to No. 9 SUNY New Paltz (14-5) in one of the biggest games of the season for the Pride. Students, faculty, and foam fingers composed the Blake Arena bleachers to cheer on their beloved men’s volleyball team as they defeated the Hawks from New Paltz in four dramatic sets.
Entertainment was on tap on Wednesday night for a rematch of the 2016 and 2017 NCAA National Championship games. Rival New Paltz defeated the Pride in 2016, and Springfield returned the favor the very next year.
The programs are familiar with each other to say the least.
“We weren’t surprised, even after game one when we kinda got on them early and ran away with it, we weren’t surprised that New Paltz was not going to go away. We have a lot of respect for their program. They play hard and compete really well. So we had a battle out there,” said Head Coach Charlie Sullivan.
A battle is exactly what it was.
The Pride came out swinging in the first set as they posted a match-high .412 hitting percentage. The environment was ideal, both programs showed off how loud they could get before the set began, and only got louder as the set continued.
Springfield would not let up and ran away with the first set. Based on the first set, it seemed as though it would be a blow out victory for the Pride. The players in white looked as if they had been preparing for this game all season long. They had an answer for every New Paltz play, and everything was going their way. Their lead got as large as 10 points when Mike Neary and Kyle Jasuta joined forces for a strong block that improved the score to 23-13.
This, however, was not the case in the second set.
The Hawks followed an abysmal -.033 hitting percentage in the first set with a .270 clip in the second. They began 8-for-8 on kills and the Springfield defense was no where to be found. The Pride were unable to muster a clean rally and fell behind as New Paltz maintained a consistent attack.
Sullivan said, “I thought they were doing a great job defensively, they had our outsides lined up pretty good with the blocking D so we were just trying to match them the whole time.”
New Paltz maintained a bite-sized lead of 2-3 points for the majority of the set until Eli Irizarry Pares took to himself to bring the Pride back. He proved that he didn’t leave his libero skills in 2018, returning multiple hard spikes at his body. Irizarry Pares continued to show off his well-roundedness as he tallied two straight well-placed spikes for the Pride to bring them within one.
Despite the fight from the Pride, New Paltz was able to hang on and claim a 23-25 set victory.
Coach Sullivan sought for a change to be made. As the teams switched sides between sets, Springfield Freshman Justin Brosnan changed out of his white jersey into his maroon libero jersey for the third set. The move was surprising, as Sullivan typically only makes changes in blow outs.
“He’s just been getting better in the gym, and there’s been more competition between [Justin and Johjan Mussa Robles]. In game two we just lost a little bit in serve receive, and we wanted to make a change to make a difference in the match,” Sullivan said.
The third set featured 5 tied scores, but no lead changes. Springfield was able to flip the storyline from set two and consistently maintain a small lead of their own throughout the entire set.
A poor return sent Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares sprinting toward the bleachers where he would recover the ball. His hit sent his forward moving brother backwards, but his knee was not having it. The star senior went down, holding his knee. Blake Arena went silent. He had injured his knee just before the game against Rivier University on February 26th when the Pride were swept at home for the first time since 2014.
Eli Gabriel carried his older brother off the court, over to the athletic trainers near the bench. This time, however, Eli walked back onto the court and continued playing. A sigh of relief took over the crowd, and the Pride were able to hold on for a 25-22 set victory.
New Paltz was not ready for the match to end in four sets. They came out strong and made the Pride look completely different than they had all night. They could not compete, the bench was silent, and the Hawks extended their lead to 7-1.
Nothing was going right for Springfield as just about every time they touched the ball in the beginning of the set, it went flying and landed at least five feet out of bounds.
Looking at the bench, you could find Junior libero Johjan Mussa Robles, who had been removed from the game after set number two, pleading his teammates to get engaged. They were looking for any possible source of momentum.
Momentum is what they received. The Pride climbed back, with the help of Blake Arena, as a New Paltz hit ricocheted off the ceiling and over the net, cutting their lead to just two. A strong combined block from Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares and Chris Parker tied the set at 18.
Though they needed some extra encouragement, it is not unlike the Pride to remain in a game from the first point to the last.
“I just think that with the group of guys that we have on the court, we just have that volleyball IQ and we can stay tough with each other. We don’t let our minds just kind of roll around and we just stay tough and feed off of each other and then keep each other in play,” said Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares.
When the Hawks’ lead improved to 19-21, Irizarry Pares encouraged his teammates, motioning for them to relax. The rest of the set was in the hands of the sophomore setter. He was dominant from behind the service line, following his 7 aces in the Pride’s last match against New York University with 4 tonight. 2 of the last 3 winning points for the Pride came directly from Irizarry Pares aces.
“I just kind of went with what our team stands for, just stayed on the system, and then just feeding off of each other. I think our bench and our team on the court did great and I kind of fed off that energy that they gave me,” said Irizarry Pares. “We were battling throughout the whole game and then I just went back there and went 100 percent like coach tells us during practice.”
The Pride improved to 19-2 after the victory, while SUNY New Paltz fell to 14-6. Springfield will host California Lutheran on Thursday, March 28th at 6:00 p.m..