(First published by The Springfield Student)
The atmosphere on Sunday afternoon was headlined by the Springfield student section called the Maroon Crew who employed a sea of white shirt that read “In Charlie We Trust,” referring to head coach Charlie Sullivan. Behind this crowd, whom with their support shook the dome of Blake Arena, the Springfield College Pride defeated the SUNY New Paltz Hawks and hoisted the trophy for their 10th national title in the program’s history in a 3-1 victory with set scores: 22-25, 25-22, 25-23, 25-21.
“Anyone who says that Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth has never played volleyball in the Mecca,” said senior Sean Zuvich in a previous interview that occurred in mid-April.
As the students filed into the bleachers, they saw their wish come true: a team of blue Hawks uniforms matching up against their men in maroon for the title for the second consecutive season.
“I think the best form of flattery is imitation,” said Springfield head coach Charlie Sullivan. “New Paltz was a tough team last year and we talked about how we didn’t play so tough. We knew we needed to get tougher, change our approach, and prepare everyday in the gym for that when the tough rally came, we were a better team.”
The two teams entered into the shaking space of the court, Springfield, led by senior Trevor Mattson, and the Hawks led by freshman libero Robert Nolan, strutting to the sound of the Olympic games theme song.
As the players from New Paltz lined up and were introduced, the Springfield faithful shielded their eyes from the waving arms of the team, holding up the off-white pages of a tabloid set newspaper that read The Springfield Student on the masthead. They quickly put them down to cheer on their peers as they were announced.
“Our fans definitely made Blake shake,” Jasuta said “It was incredible just to look at them after any point and know that we were doing this for them as well as for each other and that we could just feed off of any energy that they had.”
Set one opened with the Hawks on a 6-2 run which caused Sullivan to burn a timeout early on. The Pride were able to close the gap midway through the set when a Springfield swing sent the Hawk’s senior middle blocker Steven Woessner diving to the floor to save a sinking floater that was set by freshman setter Matt Grace and eventually blocked by Jasuta and Zuvich to make bring the contest within two points. That play was followed by a dedicated dive by junior serving specialist Sergio Figueroa Velez which sent him crashing into the first row of wooden Blake Arena bleachers and jump back up, only to hobble off the court.
The Pride, on the hinges of Zuvich and fellow, decorated, senior Luis Vega, who was granted his third player of the championship accolade for his efforts, fell just short at the end of the set when a Ricardo Padilla Ayala service error and Zuvich attack error put New Paltz up 1-0 in a 25-22 nail biter.
“It’s all about relying on the guy next to you,” Jasuta added when speaking on Sullivan’s strategies. “We’ve all bought into the system and knew where to go and when to go and it was incredible to play in front of our home crowd for that.”
The Hawks, who stressed the importance of momentum following Saturday’s game, carried that into set two when Anthony Bonilla and C.J. Borfitz stopped the swing of Zuvich to snag the first point in the set. However, the Pride were able to steal a couple points back and turn the tides on New Paltz when setter Luis Garcia Rubio saw an overpass from his team fly over his head and, without hesitation, he leaped with his arms outstretched over his head to block the swing of the Hawks middle blocker to put the Pride out in front by one. The set became concluded, 25-22, on a New Paltz service error and evened the set count at one.
Late in set three, New Paltz began to mount their comeback from down to just two points. Then, the fierce eyes and high flying Vega stepped behind the white stripe that makes the service line attempted to dig deep and finish the Hawks off with one swing. As he tossed the ball high into the air and his approach began, the crowds voices halted watching Vega’s arm whip around to strike the red, white and blue ball and fly into the net for a service error. Then, after a New Paltz serve, Padilla Ayala received his set from Garcia Rubio and tooled the block to end the second set, 25-23.
The Hawks, with their backs against the wall again, opened up with Ben Schneider behind the service line as he hit a line drive into the checkered pattern of the net. Sullivan next called upon serving specialist Tucker Evans whom the New Paltz bench referred to as “Charlie’s favorite” when he collected a service error of his own. Later on in the set, the Pride notched a five point lead at the hands of Vega. Following the swing, Vega pumped up the crowd as he walked towards the net and made a u-turn back down the left sideline towards the entrance of Blake Arena. When he reached the corner of the court, he stopped, turned again and put his hands on his knees to recollect his emotions and prepare for what the ensuing events.
The Hawks were able to get two more points: one from Grace and another from senior Jake Roessler, but it wouldn’t be enough as Grace fell victim to the service line.
The freshman, who is all too familiar to a championship setting, winning a state title in his junior season of high school, began his ritual. Grace threw his toss, stepped into his two-footed jump approach, swung and watched the tape of the tightly wound net bounce back and forth. This service error notched the 40th of the match and ended the frame with a 25-21 Springfield victory.
The Pride family and stranger fans alike rushed off of the team benches and stomped down the stands to celebrate at midcourt as the colorful confetti flew down from the low-hanging Blake Arena rafters, floating like leaves falling from a large tree in late autumn, music blasted through the speakers and the smiles of a long journey completed filled the face of a delighted Vega, who couldn’t hold back his tears of joy as he looked back on his career.
“I will never regret my decision to come to [Springfield College]. It has been great and I have learned a lot as a student-athlete,” Vega stated. “I feel like I’m very prepared for what is going to come right after this.”
With family members, alumni, and many tournament staff looking on, both teams lined up to for their tournament awards. After the Hawks had been dismissed from the court, the Pride’s ceremony began as they were given championship shirts and hats and were announced, one-by-one, to walk up for a picture with Springfield College President Dr. Mary-Beth Cooper to receive their personal trophies and shining silver watch enclosed in a mahogany box with an NCAA plate decorated on top.
For the Pride seniors, they have completed a full circle of events winning two national championship titles in their tenure as Springfield College student-athletes. While others on the team have experienced both the disappointment associated with losing a title and now the joy of raising the hardware, the team will not be able to imagine practices without their exiting seniors.
“This year has been special,” Vega added. “Our team cohesion has been incredible and that’s allowed us to be this successful.”