By Joe Arruda
SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield College men’s volleyball team enters the 2018-2019 season ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll for the fourth consecutive year. The back-to-back national champions look to continue their success with a large number of new faces on the roster.
“[We had a] huge roster turnover,” head coach Charlie Sullivan said, who won the 2018 National Coach of the Year Award.
“We lost six guys and got nine new guys in. We’ve got a team of 18. We’ve got 50% new players, and lost about 40% of the roster from last year, so it’s a huge turnover.”
Regardless of the turnover, the Pride remain a threat to the rest of Division III.
“We know we always have to get better. We always have to look for ways to improve,” Sullivan said. “We’re just always pushing the envelope to get to another level.”
In search for their 12th national championship, and their sixth in the last eight years, the Pride will look to bring something new to the table.
“We want to introduce something that no one else is doing so it’s an unusual wrinkle that we present for our opponents when they’re preparing, and we want to do it really well,” said Sullivan.
Though integrating nine new players will be a challenge, it will not be too tough a task for the back-to-back champions to handle. Ranked atop the preseason poll for the fourth consecutive season, Springfield remains a force to be reckoned with in the volleyball world.
“I just know I have to be a very good teacher and coach and mentor for them so I’m looking forward to the time together,” Sullivan said. “During the offseason you’re not allowed to do too much. It’s kind of frustrating just sitting here and not being with the team.”
Players to Watch
On a roster composed of mainly new faces, the Pride will look to their extremely accomplished seniors for leadership and their ability to perform.
“[We’re counting on] our senior guys, the guys who have had the most experience,” said Sullivan. “Mike Neary at the setter position, Eli Irizarry who played libero and might play another position this year, and then Kyle Jasuta at the middle blocker position.”
Neary garnered All-ECAC first-team honors, and will be a crucial part in the Pride’s success this season. He was the Most Outstanding Player of last year’s National Championship with 38 assists in the series. He finished the 2018 season with 668 assists, leading the Pride to a team-hitting percentage of .373, which was tops in Division III.
Pares, a libero, was named the 2018 ECAC Defensive Player of the Year, and was named to the All-ECAC first-team. He tallied 218 digs and 60 assists in his third season with the Pride.
Jasuta at the middle blocker position is another senior that should be expected to come up big for the Pride this season. He recorded 165 kills on a .471 hitting percentage, along with 71 total blocks in the 2018 championship season.
Though the Pride will be without the 2018 National Player of the Year, Sergio Figueroa Velez, at the outside hitter position, they will look to fill his spot. Whether it be a returner on the team, or one of the nine rookies, Springfield has the available personnel to step up where it is needed.
Springfield College fans should be excited to watch a new and refreshed men’s volleyball team compete with a third straight championship in their sights.
Entering the season ranked No. 1 carries a lot of pressure on the Pride to live up to the hype. They will enter every game as the team to beat, and other schools will certainly have their shot at the defending champions highlighted on their schedule.
“Everyone thinks we’re going to win, so that’s like the worst thing our players can hear,” said Sullivan. “What we need to improve upon is most important, but when you keep on hearing you’re always going to win, it’s hard to think that you really need to get after it.”
Sullivan has been greeted by the pressure of being tabbed No. 1 four pre-seasons in a row, but the honor presents itself as a challenge every time.
Coming off of a 31-2 record in their 2018 championship season, Sullivan expects an even better year in 2019.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “I’m sure if we have two losses this year it’s gonna be catastrophic.”
For the ninth time in the past ten years, the Pride will travel to California to open their season with Concordia Irvine and Hope International on January 19. Concordia joined NJIT as the only two teams to bring down the Pride last season.
“They’re just good players. They’re bigger, stronger and faster so we have to play really well to win,” Sullivan said of the Eagles. “We just want to have as many errors happen as possible so we can forget about them, but learn from them.”
Sullivan is looking for his slew of new faces, along with the returning champions, to perform to their potential from the very first serve.
“The last meeting of the year has been a celebration, where the first meeting of the year has been what went wrong. Even though we’ve won, we didn’t do things to our potential,” he said.
Men’s volleyball has proven itself to be the most successful program at Springfield College in recent years, and it should be expected that their success will continue into 2019. The expectations are through the roof, and the pressure is high, but as long as the Pride is able to remain focused on winning as they know how, a 12th national championship is in the near future.
Photo courtesy of Springfield Athletics