By Joe Arruda
The reigning national champion Springfield College men’s volleyball team (5-1) remain NCAA Division-III’s No. 1 seed through its first five matches.
With the beginning of their schedule nearly identical to their 2018 national championship run, the Pride produced seemingly identical results. After losing in three straight sets to the Division-II Concordia Eagles, they bounced back and defeated the Hope International Royal, 3-1, in the same day.
Senior Eli Irizarry Pares and freshman Brennen Brandow came to play against the Royals, tallying 14 and 13 kills, respectively. Sophomore setter Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares also delivered 39 assists in Springfield’s first win of the season.
Making a trip to California for a few games at the beginning of the season is something that Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan likes to make an annual affair. Not only is it a valuable learning experience, but it also brings the team together.
“The whole experience brings us together as a team. It is a good bonding experience, it lays the foundation for team cohesion, and then we play some good volley too,” Sullivan said.
Though their record looks the same, the lineup has undergone several changes.
“There was nothing identical for us, we are so young and new,” said Sullivan on the similar start to the season.
Before the season, Sullivan noted the huge roster turnover as the team lost six players from last season’s roster, leaving 50% of the roster to be new.
Not only is the roster full of new faces, but even returning players are being tried at new positions. Eli Irizarry Pares is one of those veteran players on the move, switching from libero to the outside hitter position. Though the change requires a lot of work, he has quickly found success, as he leads the team with 48 kills.
“Eli’s in his fourth year, but it is a whole new year for him,” said Sullivan. “He’s a rookie even though he is a three time all-american.”
While Eli Irizarry Pares seems to be thriving, Brandow is getting used to the Pride’s national championship winning system. Still, he is producing mightily at the outside hitter position — with 42 kills.
“He is just in a cocoon of learning right now,” Sullivan said of the freshman. “We don’t have a lot of time to give him one thing at a time, so we’re throwing the whole kitchen sink at him. He’s getting better, he’s doing a good job and learning a lot for sure.”
This years trip to the West Coast proved to be fruitful as Springfield proceeded to Division-III play and won nine straight sets in the Johnson & Wales Tip-Off Tournament — sweeping Johnson & Wales, Baruch and Lasell.
Eli Gabriel Irizarry Pares dished out 81 assists in the three games which led the team to a .328 hitting percentage. Against Lasell, not only did the sophomore provide 30 assists, but he also contributed with 11 kills on a .926 hitting percentage.
Though Springfield is no stranger to the No. 1 ranking, they strive to focus on continuing improvement, rather than looking back at their success with admiration. As the season gets underway, Pride fans have a lot to look forward to with this team.
“Our goal is always to be pretty humble and level-headed. That’s the fruit of the tree but we’re always focused on the roots,” said Sullivan. “The wins and the rankings, all of that is the fruit. So you can nibble on that for a second, but you’ve got to get down to the roots and take care of those roots or the fruit’s going to go away pretty quick.”
Featured photo courtesy of Sam Leventhal