By Joe Arruda
The two best teams in Division III men’s volleyball took the court on Saturday for the NCAA Division III National Championship match. Carthage fans packed the perimeter of their home court dressed in white, legs stretched – ready to stay on their feet for the majority of the match.
The Pride were inches right of keeping their season alive on championship point in set four when four-time First Team All-American Brennen Brandow fired a kill that landed just inches wide of the court. Like that, an incredible season from Springfield came to an end in the only way acceptable – with a tightly contested competition against a deserving opponent. Carthage won three sets to one.
Springfield’s season ended with a record of 29-2.
Carthage carried momentum through the first two sets as it dominated at the net both offensively and defensively. The Firebirds won each of those sets, 25-21 and 25-22, respectively.
AVCA National Coach of the Year, Charlie Sullivan, did what he could in the five minute break between sets two and three to adjust to the huge block from the Firebirds, and the Pride flashed what their home fans had seen in Blake Arena all year. After a plethora of incredible long rallies, Springfield held a 22-17 advantage in set three before Liam York landed a kill off the Firebirds block to finish the set.
Springfield wins set three to keep the season alive! Pride take the set 25-18 and trail the match two sets to one. pic.twitter.com/moGsaTKP5p
— Joe Arruda (@joearruda9) April 23, 2022
As the teams prepared for set four, one that ended up being the final set of the season, fatigue and pressure took a stranglehold on the student-athletes from both sides. The teams traded several service errors back and forth, and Carthage led 15-14 at the media timeout. The set continued in the same fashion, and Carthage held onto its miniscule advantage.
Several blistering kills from the Firebirds allowed them to extend a slim lead which they carried in front of their home crowd until their side of the scoreboard read 25.
The powerful high-flying duo of Brandow and Jarrett Anderson, both First Team All-Americans – Anderson the National Player of the Year, combined for 32 kills on the pins. Liam York, who had just one kill through the first two sets, finished with 11 in the match.
Second Team All-American, setter Matt Lilley, who directed the most efficient offense in Div. III, totalled 43 assists. Libero Johjan Mussa Robles earned Second Team All-America honors in his sixth season with the Pride and totalled an extraordinary 19 digs on some of the toughest attacks Springfield has had to deal with all season.
A home court advantage in the national title game is something Springfield has had for itself, but to say it was a factor on Saturday would be an understatement. With the Carthage College bleachers that wrap around the entirety of the gym, an extra source of pressure was placed directly behind all Springfield servers. Fans jumped around and leaned in, heckling every time the Pride were to serve. While expected and normal for a college environment, it certainly took Springfield’s mostly inexperienced roster some time to get used to.
The Pride totalled 23 service errors compared to Carthage’s 16, killing any momentum they had built. Much of that could also be attributed to the lopsided amount of experience on the roster. Carthage the defending national champions, Springfield devastated by COVID the previous two seasons.
Springfield’s faithful supporters watched – mostly through computer screens – a rare battle where the Pride didn’t come out on top. The incredible run that Sullivan’s team put together after two years without tournament play consisted of straight dominance. The Pride were always the best team on the floor, but Saturday’s match in Kenosha, Wis. was a heavyweight battle between the clear two best teams in the nation.
Springfield fought pound-for-pound and won an inspiring third set, but came up just short of a nation-leading 12th national title.