For the third time in as many years, head coach Charlie Sullivan and the Springfield College men’s volleyball team can call themselves Division III National Champions. With a 3-0 sweep of Juniata College on Sunday, April 27, led by 17 kills from sophomore outside hitter Luis Vega, the Pride have once again been able to cut down the black nylon strings of the National Championship net.
Vega, who went on to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for the second time in a row, started off cold in the match, but eventually he caught fire, resulting in a string of instrumental kills that sparked the necessary momentum for the Pride to grind out the three-set victory over the Eagles in front of a hostile road crowd.
“It was a pretty tight match with a lot of pivotal moments and I am very proud of our guys to step up, showing focus and determination and producing some great rallies,” said Sullivan following the match.
To most viewers of the game, the Pride’s offense of Vega and reigning American Volleyball Coaches Association Player of the Year Jimmy O’Leary proved to be the most crucial stat of the game, but it was the Pride’s defense, holding one of the nation’s top outside hitters, Paul Kuhn, to just a .238 hitting percentage, that proved to be the difference.
“In general a lot of the credit on a good team goes to the hitters, but what people don’t see is Nick Ferry and our defense,” said junior setter Keaton Pieper. “We have a scouting report and we know who their hitters are every match and we put a block up, but we still have a defense behind them for that reason. Defense is obviously a huge part of it, and a lot of the time those people don’t get a lot of the credit.”
The past three years, the AVCA Player of the Year has been on a team that did not win the National Championship. In fact, the Player of the Year has always lost to Springfield in the national title match. In 2012, Randy Hansen of Carthage College was named the AVCA Player of the Year, and the Red Men were swept by Springfield. In 2013, Nazareth College setter E.J. Wells-Spicer garnered the national recognition, and the Golden Flyers were swept 3-0 by the Pride.
However, in 2014, the curse was broken. O’Leary, who finished the match with 13 kills at a remarkable .750 clip, helped pace the Pride to victory.
“Juniata has great blockers, especially in the middle. [Joe] Bortak is always great every year,” commented the senior middle blocker. “I don’t really have a game plan. Keaton runs the offense; he just does whatever he wants. I am not the type of person to complain about how many times I get set the ball. If he gives me the ball I try to put it away.”
O’Leary, who took over for one of the most prolific middle blockers in Springfield College’s prestigious program, Greg Falcone, knew that this year was the year for him to rise to the occasion.
“Greg [Falcone] has been a big factor for me in years past,” said O’Leary. “He approached me after last year and told me that I was going to have to step up next year and I tried to fulfill the role that he had.”
Vega, who posted 13 kills in the 2013 National Championship match against Nazareth, followed it up with 17 kills against Juniata in the title match. Despite all of his successes, the sophomore from Corozal, Puerto Rico believes it is the group known as the “Maroon Team,” Springfield’s scout team, that helps the Pride be prepared for every match.
“I didn’t think much about being in this position right now,” said Vega regarding his career at Springfield College. “I just tried to improve and get better every day at practice. I just wanted to step up for the team. We have a good ‘Maroon Team’ in practice. We improve because of them.”
Over the course of 35 games in 2014, the Pride used 18 different line-up combinations. However, for the final four matches of the season and the three matches throughout the NCAA Tournament, their line-up consisting of Vega, O’Leary, Pieper, Sean Zuvich, Sean Peterson, Angel Perez and Nick Ferry proved to be the recipe for the Pride’s success.
“We had a lot of injuries and we graduated eight members of the team from last season,” said Sullivan. “These guys really had to dedicate themselves to new things and stepping out of their comfort zone. This team has grown exponentially.”
Midway through the season, there was little hope for the outsiders looking in that Springfield would be the nation’s top team come season’s end. After a 3-0 loss to Concordia University on Saturday, February 22, the Pride went on to win 16 Division III matches in a row.
“This run has been special,” commented Sullivan. “It has been a lot of focus, hard work and determination. Our guys refused to play away from their potential. That’s all you can ask from an athlete in a big match like this. They had a mindset that was really strong and wanted to get better all the time, and that was really fun to watch.”
Men’s volleyball has become a staple at Springfield College. Charlie Sullivan has created a brand name behind coaching the sport. To go along with all of the success of the program, the team is appreciative of all the support they receive from the Springfield College Athletics Department, along with the students and faculty that pace Alden Street day in and day out.
“We had so many alumni email our players and share with our players their memories of April, and I think they did really well,” said Sullivan. “It was really great to hear from them. It’s unbelievable because even though we are a small school, when we are in a room and our whole staff is talking about men’s volleyball, it’s kind of thrilling.”
Jon Santer can be reached at email@example.com