By Joe Arruda
The 2021 Springfield men’s volleyball season ended the same way it did 2020 — with a horrifying combination of sheer devastation and confusion.
In 2020, the team was ranked No. 1 in the country, approaching the final stretch of the season before COVID-19 halted it. Last season, the team saw 18 of its scheduled games canceled due to the virus and was only able to participate six times. Still, they were ranked #2 in the country heading into the NCAA Tournament roster show with a 5-1 record.
The committee needed a large bid as an independent competitor and determined that the team had not played enough games to make it to the tournament.
“It’s definitely taken back for all of us,” said senior Brennen Brandow. “I think that’s a big reason why a lot of guys came back. Just to prove that’s not who we are; we didn’t come for that. 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 won’t lose.”
This year, Springfield is doing everything they can to make the season as “normal” as possible, including making the difficult decision to cancel their annual trip to California at the start of the season.
“That also included the guys who decided going to California was too risky,” said Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan. “When we looked at all the pros and cons of going to California, it was too risky to get COVID and get stuck in California. Thanks to the boys for minimizing risks and making the season as normal as possible.”
A year away from back-to-back National Championships after winning in 2017 and 2018 before falling in a tough game against SUNY New Paltz in 2019, the 2020 team stood 19-2 with six games left for the tournament.
“I think 2020 would have been special,” Brandow said. “Just the group we had and the way we played was something different.”
That group was highlighted by Brandow, who was named 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 also a First team was mentioned. -Team All-American as a freshman.
Guys like Johjan Mussa Robles, Chris Parker and Matt Lilley have all returned to Springfield to take advantage of their additional eligibility due to the pandemic. Nate Reynolds, who transitioned to Pride after three seasons at Stevenson University, earned the 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 lasted six years, which is longer than the average marriage in America,” Sullivan said jokingly.
Still, with all their individual awards, Sullivan’s team doesn’t have the “big match experience” he would like. By the standards of the program, 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 at a championship event,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan, a legendary coach not only on the Springfield College podium but nationally, recently took his 450th career win with the Pride—something only nine other coaches have done in the history of men’s collegiate volleyball. His resume, marked by several stints with the United States national team and an Olympic bronze medal, helps him attract many players who could have made a Division I team.
Still, even with his roster marked by a handful of All-Americans, the goal is to play championship-level, game-in and game-out volleyball.
“We expect ourselves to perform at a high level,” Brandow said. “We may not have that (championship) experience, but we certainly have the experience to play volleyball a lot and have a tight-knit group.”
That group has expanded to include eight freshmen, who will have the opportunity to learn from the best coach in the country while also seeing some of the best players.
Brandow said, “I just explained that we’ve been in the same group for three years, how special that is to us and just show the new guys, ‘Hey, this is what Springfield volleyball is.’ And then just be open and vulnerable, take that culture and just run with it.
The program has more national championships (11) than any other school, and hopes to have a fair shot this year. If they don’t have to fight COVID in addition to their heavy schedule, the Pride certainly have a shot at another tournament.
“Obviously you know the team has to perform at a high level, and I think we’re just ready for that this year. I think the group we have certainly can, and I think we – as a group – have made the decision to get to that next level,” Brandow said.
“If we play our game and play our side the way the coach tells us, I mean we can be the lights out. We can really shock the world with how well we can play.”
Photo by Joe Arruda