By Joe Arruda
The Pride of Springfield College strolled into Blake Arena on Saturday night looking to advance to their tenth straight NCAA semifinal game. In order to advance they had to outplay Rivier University in the quarterfinal, the only Div. III team to defeat them in the 2019 season.
On February 26th, the Raiders from Rivier got the best of a Pride squad that was missing one of their key factors in Eli Irizarry Pares. That loss came as the Pride’s first time being swept in Blake Arena since 2014, and they were not looking for a similar result on the national stage.
Business shown on the faces of the men in white as they made their slow-paced entrance into the Arena. The fans were ready to witness the No. 1 team in the country in their final home match of the season.
“It was a good crowd, and we had a good team on the other side of the net. We respect Rivier a lot, they come every year with a good system and a good level of play. We know we’ve got to put out A-game out there to compete with them and I thought we did a good job of that,” said Pride Head Coach Charlie Sullivan.
On that blistering cold February night, Springfield was held to an abysmal .143 hitting percentage in the setback. However, on Saturday night the Pride would rewrite the script. Thanks to 30 assists from sophomore setter Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares, they were able to put together 42 kills on a .327 hitting percentage this time around.
“We took some hard shots. We just knew with that defense on the other side, they play some really good defense. I thought they had some pretty good digs on us even though we had some good swings and we just knew we had to be smart,” Sullivan said.
A freshman hitter, Brennen Brandow was able to prove his value as he impressed in all aspects of the game. He highlighted the match with 19 kills on a .405 hitting clip. Brandow also provided 3 service aces, 8 digs, and 3 combined blocks.
“We just stayed behind the ball like we do in practice everyday, took smart shots like coach says,” Brandow said post-game. “They’re definitely a good blocking team over there at Rivier, so just taking smart shots off the block and finding the seams in the blocks [was the key].”
Being able to avenge their loss highlighted the strength of the Springfield College system. Despite all of the new faces and position changes, the Pride were able to learn from their mistakes and secure a dominating victory on the national stage.
“We had time to digest some things that didn’t go well and since then we’ve grown from experience and use that experience to get better and more effective in a variety of different situations,” Sullivan said.
Junior libero Johjan Mussa Robles added, “We’ve progressed a lot since the beginning, even when we started in the fall last semester. I think every single person on and off the court has taken their role on the team so well and that’s how we have grown so much throughout the season.”
Springfield’s defense held the Raiders to a .088 hitting percentage, producing 11 team blocks and 53 digs. Three members of the Pride tallied digs in the double digits, including Mussa Robles who produced 10 of his own.
“It was really a team effort, it took a lot of us to just be mindful that we had to stay in our own lanes,” Mussa Robles said. “We came in knowing they’re a really good team and they played amazingly against us, so we were just trying to get one less kill out from them.”
The environment in Blake Arena was electric from player introductions to the team recognition after their victory. As each Kyle Jasuta or Eli Irizarry Pares spike echoed off of the hardwood, the fans jumped off of the bleachers and gave their larynx a workout.
“The environment in Blake Arena as a whole at Springfield College feels like home with everyone cheering you on. It’s great,” Brandow reflected.
Despite a freshman stealing the show, the Pride veterans brought valuable experience to the moment, and did not disappoint in their own performances. Jasuta, a graduate student, finished with 6 monstrous kills, along with 6 combined blocks in his final game in Springfield. Senior Mike Neary tallied 7 kills, and his classmate Irizarry Pares contributed with 8 kills of his own, along with 8 assists.
The stat sheet wasn’t the only thing that noticeably flipped. From the start of the season, the Pride energy would determine the outcome of the match. In their first matchup, Rivier controlled all momentum and the then-ranked No. 1 team in the country was left pleading for any words of encouragement. Led by Mussa Robles, the noise from the Pride bench this time around was through the roof, as usual.
“We just stayed in our lane, stayed focused, and it took a team effort,” said Mussa Robles.
Springfield will travel to Union, New Jersey where they will play in their tenth consecutive NCAA semifinal game next Friday against SUNY New Paltz. The Pride have defeated New Paltz twice this season already, both by scores of 3-1.
“We haven’t done much past this weekend, we were just trying to get past Rivier, but I think we’re already late in preparing so we’ve got to get some work done,” Sullivan joked towards his players.
Photo courtesy of Jack Margaros