By Joe Arruda
On March 12, 2020, the collegiate sports world came to a screeching halt. Student-athletes were just being released from their afternoon classes, some leaving the dining hall after a mid-afternoon meal, others may have been taking a nap or hanging out with friends in their dorms.
Then came 3:00 p.m.
The NEWMAC conference suspended spring sports play. It was before anyone really knew the extent that the Coronavirus would affect the country – before the death toll climbed over an astronomical half million. There was still an inkling of hope for the men’s volleyball team, as they are not affiliated with a conference.
Student-athletes reported to team meetings where they were made aware of the news – some of them realizing they had already played in their final collegiate game.
Then, just after 4 p.m., the NCAA squandered that idea with a press release which cancelled all spring seasons.
Men’s volleyball head coach, Charlie Sullivan, was driving home after his team meeting, still with the thought in mind that his team would return to competition. That was until one of his players called him.
“Coach, ESPN just announced that all spring sports are cancelled.”
Campus was somber, the most depressing atmosphere Alden Street had likely ever seen with students on campus – a feeling that became normal once students were sent home just a few days later for the remainder of the semester.
Springfield men’s volleyball, ranked No. 1 in the nation, was 19-2 with only six matches to go before the NCAA tournament. They were favorites to return the national championship trophy to the Blake Arena showcases for the 12th time in program history.
Now, over a year since their last match, the Springfield men’s volleyball team will prepare to raise the net in Blake Arena on Saturday, March 13. They were the last Springfield team to compete in an in-person environment in 2020, and they will be the first in 2021.
The process which preceded the 10-game schedule that was produced was a long, challenging one. Beginning at some point around December, the team had been exploring opportunities which led to this point.
“It’s been challenging for sure. It’s just human nature to want to know what’s going on and not having any idea what was going to happen was very uncomfortable, but we just kind of try to own every moment as best we can,” Sullivan said.
Practices began in small pods for four weeks once students returned to campus at the end of January and eventually were able to become more competitive, including ‘6v6’ – a sort of intersquad game.
With nine new names on the roster – six first-years and three transfers – the lack of team gatherings has threatened one of the Pride’s invaluable strengths. In any normal year, the team would travel to California for a few matches and a bonding experience over the school break in January.
“The most difficult thing is that without being able to socially gather, any social cohesion hasn’t really formed. We usually start out by going to California and the most important thing is they get to know each other really well and get a lot of time to bond as a family,” Sullivan said. “That policy driven separation with our team has affected our team in terms of our cohesiveness.”
The team enters the 2021 season ranked first in the nation in the Division III NCAA/AVCA coaches poll. This marks the fifth time in the last six seasons where the Pride have entered the year as the top-ranked team in the country and the 70th straight poll in the top two.
Bolstered by their legendary head coach in Sullivan who is entering his 23rd season, the team has only gotten stronger since its impressive run in 2020. Johjan Mussa Robles was the lone senior on the 2020 roster and when the season was cancelled the libero from Caguas, Puerto Rico posted a heartfelt message on his Instagram.
“As reality sinks in, I have to face the fact that my journey on Alden St. and in Blake Arena is over. My last year couldn’t have ended any worse,” the caption read.
“Thank you Springfield for giving me some of my best friends and for giving me memories I will cherish forever. (….) Last week I played my last game wearing THE jersey and I didn’t even know it. Although the future is unknown, I really hope it’s not the last time I get to play the sport that gave me purpose.”
That was on March 17. On July 24, it turned out that his final sentiment would come true. He posted, “I guess my journey on Alden ST. is NOT over!”
Mussa Robles was among the many with their future up in the air after receiving his diploma in the mail.
“My original plan was to get out of school, work for a year or two and then go back to school. Then, obviously Covid happened – I already said bye, I already said bye to the coaches, the team was not expecting me to come back. A couple weeks later, I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’ I didn’t have plans, no job lined up, Covid kind of froze everything down. I’m like, ‘There’s nothing stopping me from going back to school now,’” he said.
“All summer it was a big roller coaster. I’m good where I am now,” he said with a wide smile stretched across his face.
Mussa Robles, who was a Second Team All-American in 2019, holds a role on the team as a leader not just on the court, but on the sidelines and beyond.
This year’s team has piled up its collective share of accolades. Most notable are the hitting tandem in Brennen Brandow and Jarrett Anderson.
Brandow, a junior, was named the 2020 TeamSnap/AVCA Men’s Volleyball Division III National Player of the Year and was an AVCA Division III All-America First Team honoree in his sophomore campaign. As a freshman, Brandow earned AVCA Newcomer of the Year recognition and was a Second Team All-American.
Anderson, his sophomore counterpart, was named a First Team All-American and the AVCA Newcomer of the Year in 2020.
Mussa Robles, Brandow and Anderson are just a few of the shining stars on the Springfield roster which includes a senior All-American transfer from Stevenson University in Nate Reynolds.
The fire power is there, but the shot at another national championship is still to be determined. Springfield is waiting on the NCAA survey of Div. III schools that sponsor NCAA men’s volleyball to learn if there will be a national championship tournament, or not. 70 percent of schools that have a program must be participating in a season.
Through the year of uncertainty, the goals of the men’s volleyball program have stood strong. For a program that wins so often, the goal isn’t so.
“Our goal is not to win, our goal is to always play at championship level. If we do win, that’s basically a cherry on top,” Mussa Robles said. “That’s why it hurt so much last year because we were close to getting to that potential – we were seeing it, we were going to get there, we knew we were going to get there.”
Sullivan added, “We’re not on a mission for wins and losses this year, we’re on a mission to do it right. To do it right by the guys and just give them an opportunity.”
Though Blake Arena will be holding true to its 50-person Covid capacity, the energy from a team that hasn’t played in over a year will certainly be there.
Saturday, March 13 will be the first in-person athletic competition on the campus since March 8, 2020.
“We just appreciate and we are thankful that we are back on the court, that we just want to play good volleyball and have fun, but also hoping that there is a national championship to finish unfinished business,” Mussa Robles said.
“We’re ready to go, we’re just hungry – hungry to keep going.”
Photo: Jack Margaros/The Student