By Joe Arruda
The 2019 season for the Springfield College men’s volleyball team did not end how they wanted it to. The then-reigning back-to-back National Champions came into the season ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division III, and went on to piece together a 26-2 regular season.
But, after traveling to Kean University in New Jersey for the NCAA Semifinal match against SUNY New Paltz, they quickly returned to the road headed straight back to Alden Street.
For the majority of the season, the Pride sat comfortably at the top of the polls. They had defeated the Hawks twice already in the regular season. The upset victory propelled New Paltz to their second-ever national title.
Springfield, however, would make the almost three hour drive in silence.
They tried to allow each other to gather their thoughts – the seniors especially. They reflected on their illustrious careers.
Almost half of the Pride starting lineup would go on to graduate leaving head coach Charlie Sullivan to do arguably what he does best, bring in another talented young group.
“We have learned a lot from last year. We have changed so much. Our coaching is very different and we expect a much different team this year in terms of we can trust each other more, so it’s great,” Sullivan said.
“We’re aiming for a Springfield College team. A team that is very enthusiastic, has great energy, and that is very supportive of one another. Our goals are that those adjectives will help us be a very cohesive team and trust each other.”
Reflecting on the 2019 season, Sullivan concluded that the culture of the program was in need of a slight adjustment.
He said, “In terms of a leader, we’re really rebuilding our whole culture in terms of how we form relationships, how we communicate, how we do things so we can be more cohesive than we were last year.”
In his 22nd year at the helm of the Pride, that cohesiveness is what he’s preached to all five of his NCAA National Championship winning teams since the NCAA adopted men’s volleyball as a sport in 2012.
Players to Watch
2019 was not the end of a dynasty for the Pride.
The future remains as bright as the present with their current group – one that entered the season ranked No. 2 with three players who were recognized as Off the Block Division III Preseason All-Americans.
Sophomore Brennen Brandow highlights the trio after being the only first-year in the country to be honored as an All-American last season. He collected ECAC Rookie of the Year, AVCA Division III National Newcomer of the year, All-ECAC First Team honors to go along with being named to the AVCA All-America Second Team.
Despite being an obvious piece for opponents to strategize around, Brandow looks to continue his dominance in year two with new faces around him.
“Our aspirations for Brennen are that the results (from last year) don’t spew his judgement in terms of doing the right thing and being any more willing than he was last year,” Sullivan said. “We’re working to always push the envelope, to be better and to improve. I think he is going to be able to take that mindset and be even better than last year, that’s his aspiration.”
With just one senior on the roster, much of the pressure in terms of production and leadership will fall at the hands of the younger athletes.
That lone senior is libero Johjan Mussa Robles.
He was also a member of the Preseason All-America trio after producing yet another successful year in 2019. But for Mussa Robles, stats do not tell the whole story.
He is a vocal leader, one of the players that Sullivan expects to head the new focus on cohesiveness, intensity, and trust.
Rounding out the trio was first-year Jarrett Anderson. Despite never playing a collegiate match, his efforts in high school have already turned eyes his way.
“Jarrett was the MVP (of the high school club national championship). That gave him a little bit of a flame and people got to know him. I think those coaches think he’s that good and he’s going to step in and be an All-American,” Sullivan said.
“He has a ton of potential. He is a really good athlete, very strong. I think he can (fit in with the team), but that is all kind of a product that we’re not really worried about, we’re just working on the process. Trying to get them training and moving.”
In a revamped Springfield College lineup, any player on the roster has a chance at making their own impact. Players who have been on the team for a few years playing behind stars, like junior setter Matt Lilley, are now going to get their chance, and first-years look to recreate what the nation saw from Brandow in his rookie season.
Entering their weekend tri-match on Saturday, Jan. 25, the Pride carry a record of 1-1 after their trip to California last week. In the Golden State, the team matched up with an NAIA Division I opponent in Vanguard University, splitting the double header.
The maroon and white looked strong in their season opener, sweeping the Lions in three straight sets. In the second match, the Pride were defeated in five sets.
Despite the loss, Brandow put together a 24 kill performance on a .374 clip, and Anderson added 21 of his own. Lilley directed the offense with 47 assists, and also did his part on defense leading the team with 12 digs.
“Our first-year guys are doing great. They have really good attitudes, they want to learn, they’re willing, good players, it’s going really well,” Sullivan said.
Sometimes it takes that first five-set loss to springboard a successful season. If so, the Pride are in a prime position.
“I think our team really benefits every year from believing we can win a national championship every year. I think we really benefit from that,” Sullivan said. “We just need to figure out a formula that is going to get us there with this particular crew.”
Hosting their first tri-match of the season on Saturday, the Pride will welcome the likes of Sage and Elmira to Blake Arena. Last season, the maroon and white swept both teams at home, and they intend to do the same this year.