By Joe Arruda
The 2021 Springfield men’s volleyball season ended similarly to 2020 – with a gruesome combination of pure devastation and confusion.
In 2020, the team was ranked No.1 in the country nearing the final stretch of the season before COVID-19 shut it down. Last season, the team had 18 of its scheduled matches cancelled because of the virus and was only able to compete six times. Still, they were ranked No. 2 in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament selection show with a 5-1 record.
Needing an at-large bid as an independent competitor, the Committee determined that the team hadn’t played enough games to make the tournament.
“It definitely was taken back for all of us,” senior Brennen Brandow said. “I think that’s a huge reason why a lot of guys came back. Just to prove that that’s not who we are; that’s not what we came here to do. If we lose one game and don’t make it, it is what it is, but we’ll just prove to the other schools that we’re not losing then.”
This year, Springfield is doing all that it can to make the season as ‘normal’ as possible, including making the tough decision to cancel their annual beginning-of-the-season trip to California.
“That included the guys deciding that going to California was too risky,” Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan said. “When we looked at all of the pros and cons of going to California it was too risky to catch COVID and get stuck in California. Thanks to the guys for staying low risk as much as possible and trying to make the season as normal as possible.”
One year removed from back-to-back national championships after winning in 2017 and 2018 before falling in a tough match to SUNY New Paltz in 2019, the 2020 team was 19-2 with six matches left before the tournament.
“I think 2020 would have been special,” Brandow said. “Just the group we had and the way we were performing, it was something different.”
That group was highlighted by Brandow, who was named the TeamSnap and AVCA Division III National Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in 2020, and Jarrett Anderson, who received AVCA Newcomer of the Year recognition and was also named a First-Team All-American as a first-year.
Guys like Johjan Mussa Robles, Chris Parker and Matt Lilley have all returned to Springfield to utilize their extra eligibility because of the pandemic. Nate Reynolds, who transferred to the Pride after playing three seasons at Stevenson University, earned Second Team All-American honors in 2019, and has also returned for a second stint with Springfield.
For Mussa Robles, 2022 will be his sixth season in the maroon and white.
“Johan and I, our relationship has lasted six years, which is longer than the average marriage in America,” Sullivan said, jokingly.
Still though, with all of their individual accolades, Sullivan’s team doesn’t have the “big match experience” that he would like. To the program’s standards, that experience only comes from playing in a championship game and only Mussa Robles has (in 2017 and 2018).
“It’s one thing to know the culture but you don’t really learn a culture until you experience it under a championship event,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, a legendary coach not only on the Springfield College stage, but also nationally, recently earned his 450th career win with the Pride – something only nine other coaches have done in the history of collegiate men’s volleyball. His resumé, highlighted by several stints with the United States National Team and a bronze Olympic medal, helps him attract many players who could have made a Division I team.
Still, even with his roster highlighted by a handful of All-Americans, the goal is to play championship-level volleyball, game-in and game-out.
“We have this expectation of ourselves to perform at a high level,” Brandow said. “We might not have that (championship) experience, but we definitely have the experience of playing volleyball a lot and have a tight group.”
That group has expanded with eight first-year additions, who have a chance to learn from the best coach in the country and some of the best players at the same time.
Brandow said, “I just kind of explained that we’ve had the same group for three years, how special that is for us and just showing the new guys, ‘Hey, this is what Springfield volleyball is.’ And then just being open and vulnerable, and taking that culture and just running with it too.”
The program has more national championships (11) than any other school, and hopes to get a fair shot this year. If they don’t have to battle COVID in addition to their tough schedule, the Pride certainly have a chance at another tournament push.
“Obviously coming in, you know that the team has to perform to high levels, and I think that we’re just ready to do that this year. I think the group that we have definitely can, and I think that we – as a group – made that decision to push that next level,” said Brandow.
“If we play our game and our side how Coach tells us to play, I mean, we could be lights out. We could really shock the world with how good we can play.”
Photo by Joe Arruda