By Joe Arruda
Down two sets to one, the Springfield College men’s volleyball team was not ready to allow their outstanding 27-2 season to end short.
In the fourth set, the gymnasium at Kean University witnessed the then-ranked No. 1 team in the country struggling to keep their head above water. A familiar foe in SUNY New Paltz dominated the Pride for the majority of the match, capitalizing off of a slew of maroon and white errors.
The Pride fought to the final point.
As Aaron Clark rose into the air, hand swung back, the Springfield defense set up ready for the attack. Clark’s 18th kill drilled into the back line. The line judge directed his flag toward the court. The ball was in. The Pride were dethroned.
“We were down, we were just struggling to keep our head above water, but we were still growing and getting better. And then it showed up in the end of game four where we were pressing to continue to a game five, but they had a couple really good rallies that buried us,” head coach Charlie Sullivan said. “I was happy that our guys just didn’t go away.”
The team in blue stormed the court, celebrating with smiles ear to ear and fists in the air. The season was done for the reigning back-to-back national champions. They managed to keep their heads high, the Springfield College way, masking the defeat inside themselves.
“New Paltz really brought it the whole game, they came after it. We tried a couple things but everything we tried to have a plan for they seemed to have a better plan for,” said graduate student Kyle Jasuta after his final game.
“Everybody definitely had their heads down for awhile. We really tried to just kind of let everyone gather their thoughts and regroup later, but really stay together as a team.”
While their season didn’t end with a twelfth national championship, the Pride are hopeful going into the future.
The season was characterized as one with a lot of firsts for the Pride, but their regular season success was nothing new. The headlines consist of star players being asked to switch positions, along with a slew of new faces in The Jersey.
“Everything we’ve asked them to do that’s not a strength, they’ve gotten better at it. It was a resilient group that got a lot better. They grew, and even with new guys and new positions for the first time, I think that to achieve what they did was pretty special,” said Sullivan.
“The result we want all the time here is to have a very cohesive team that plays a high level of volleyball, a championship level of volleyball in April. We didn’t win, but what we really didn’t do was achieve our goal of being as cohesive as we could’ve been and playing a championship level of volleyball.”
Though they came back to Springfield empty-handed, the season was not a waste. The strength of the Springfield College men’s volleyball program was proven throughout the entirety of the 2018-19 season. Their system and the depth was under the spotlight through the many highs, and even the few lows.
The way the program is built, such a staple in the men’s volleyball world, they will not be going away anytime soon.
Sullivan said, “We’re working on taking that failure as some fertilizer for success and learn from it and then evaluate how we’re gonna not let that happen again.”
The Pride headlined the individual AVCA national honors this season. They lead the nation in players recognized as four players represented on the All-America teams. Brennen Brandow was the only freshman in the country recognized as he won the National Newcomer of the Year honors.
For Brandow, there are three promising years left of his career, but for other key players their strong careers came to an unsettling end.
“They’ve contributed a lot to the program. They’ve had a huge impact on the program through their dedication, through buying in to our culture, to our system. They were phenomenal,” Sullivan reflected on his seniors.
Kyle Jasuta was another member of the Pride who earned All-America honors, marking his third straight second team honor.
“Getting another recognition like that was great, but honestly anyone on our starting squad or even on our bench, anybody who is in that role really will get that recognition just because we all put in that hard work and really try and get after it,” he said.
His career featured two national championship victories, and he had a strong presence near the net. Jasuta was a force to be reckoned with when hitting the ball, never failing to get the crowd on their feet after a massive kill.
“I definitely will miss playing in front of the home crowd of Blake, especially playing in such a different environment this last season and the season before that,” said Jasuta. “It’s just that home feeling of that national championship game especially, the backing was unreal. I’ll never forget how confident and familiar I felt just playing on that court.”
“There were some really high highs and some really low lows, but all around it was a program that I loved and that I will never forget. It was the best thing that I could’ve done while I was here.”
The influx of new faces will only continue to provide the Pride with new challenges, but the future is bright.
“We’re gonna be younger than ever next year,” said Sullivan. “It’s good and exciting because we’re kind of like building a whole new foundation over again. It’s a fresh start.”
Star players in Jasuta, Eli Irizarry Pares, and Mike Neary will leave large shoes to fill for the younger members of the team next season. All three players were top threats, and when they rose to hit the ball no one in the Arena would blink an eye, fearful of missing something amazing.
Sullivan, the AVCA National Coach of the Year award winner in each of the last two seasons, is up to the challenge. His goal is to integrate the new faces into the system, and if they are able to embrace the Springfield College mentality like Brandow was able to do this season, success will not be a far reach. If any coach is able to successfully do this, Sullivan is the guy.
“You know the experience is going to be a factor, but we have just got to do a good job coaching and give them that information so that they can grow faster than ever,” he said. “We have to grow in dog years, not human years next year. We’ll be seven years old by the end of the season.”
Jasuta left future members of the program with strong words of advice:
“Trust in our process, trust in Charlie. I think that our coach knows what he wants to do with each and every team, and if we all just think of what we can do and buy into it we’ll do well.”