By Joe Arruda
On Friday, Springfield College hosted an NCAA Tournament game in Blake Arena for the first time in 769 days – the last time, Hobart men’s basketball downed Jake Ross, Heath Post and the rest of the Birthplace Boys at the buzzer. Friday the men’s volleyball team switched the script.
With a large crowd full of students and families wearing white – and the team’s unofficial mascot, a mounted deer head named Javi – the energy reverberated throughout Blake Arena and helped Springfield to a straight-set sweep of Penn State-Behrend.
“The Mecca is one of the best places to play. Being with our guys, with that crowd that we had, it’s unreal,” fifth-year setter Matt Lilley said. “It’s been three years since we felt that feeling. We came in with a little bit of experience from Johjan (Mussa Robles) and Brennen (Brandow) and then the rest of us on the floor. I was a little nervous, I’m not gonna lie. It was weird to start a game in the NCAA Tournament and we started off well, we came out with the best energy we could.”
Springfield, the top overall seed in the tournament, came into the first round hot. In warmups they punished the ball more than they have all season. During the match, the left side – home side – of the scoreboard was being worked out far more than the right. It quickly became clear that the two teams were on entirely different levels.
Fair to say Brandow looks ready… pic.twitter.com/nuQkFXB2Q4
— Joe Arruda (@joearruda9) April 15, 2022
Penn State-Behrend earned its program’s first-ever NCAA birth by winning the Allegheny Mountain Conference. The Lions finished the season with a 22-8 record, but played a schedule incomparable to Springfield’s.
“When we’re watching a video, we’re trying to find small advantages here or there that we can try to take advantage of,” Penn State-Behrend head coach Phil Pisano said. “When you watch Springfield there’s not much to pick from. Springfield is even scarier in person, and they’re pretty scary on film.”
The Pride gave Behrend a taste of reality immediately in the first set as Brandow, Jarrett Anderson and Nate Reynolds let loose. Behind kills from each of them, and an ace from Anderson, Springfield jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead. The advantage grew over the course of the set, but Behrend put up a fight before Reynolds eventually sealed a 25-19 win with a kill that blasted the Behrend blockers.
Springfield’s momentum only grew from there as the Pride’s strong and fast attack quickly wore out the visitors. Set two opened with a 7-0 Springfield run and resulted in an impressive 25-8 set win. The Pride came out in set three with a 11-3 advantage before a Lions attack error ended the frame at 25-9, completing Springfield’s 10th straight win via sweep.
Behind Lilley’s superb ball distribution, the Pride hit at an astronomical .614 clip as a team. Anderson, who was recently named the AVCA Northeast Player of the Year, tallied a match-high 12 kills at an incredible .857 clip. Brandow, an All-Region honoree, hit for 11 of his own at a .444 clip. In addition, the superstar Springfield duo each struck four service aces.
Defensively, the Pride held Behrend to a .000 hitting clip and totalled seven blocks highlighted by one solo and three assisted from Chris Parker.
“It was really just following our gameplan,” Lilley said. “We knew what we had to do, we have to play well as a team. We were able to connect, we had a lot of good practice this morning and were able to come with some rhythm even though we haven’t played in a week and a half. We were just kind of connecting on all cylinders where we can just spread it out in our offense.”
Lilley knows his hitters well. For the majority of the last three seasons, Springfield’s starting lineup hasn’t changed much. Friday’s lineup, like several matches this season, featured first-year Noah Weislo who tabbed five kills on a perfect hitting percentage. Though most of the starters have been playing together for years, this year’s first round match was their first together in the NCAA tournament after COVID shut down the world in 2020 and denied the Pride a shot in 2021.
“I think we really miss it,” Sullivan said of welcoming the NCAA tournament back to Blake Arena. “The last couple years not being here, I think our guys have been hungry all year doing everything they can to make sure that we get the opportunity. And now that we have the opportunity, I thought we took advantage of (it) tonight.”
Springfield will take on the winner of the other first round match hosted in Blake Arena between Marymount and SUNY New Paltz, tomorrow, April 16, at 6 p.m.
Photo by Joe Arruda