Division III No. 1 Springfield men ready for NCAA stretch run

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Springfield's Luis Vega is the AVCA Division III player of the year/Springfield photo

By Sam Leventhal for VolleyballMag.com

Springfield has played in the last seven Division III national-championship matches, so it was not surprising that the Pride was No. 1 in this year’s AVCA Division III men’s preseason poll.

“I hate being No. 1 in every poll except the last one,” coach Charlie Sullivan said then. “I always want our players to be hungry and never satisfied. The No. 1 ranking gives them a feeling they have achieved. We have not even practiced yet. It is my job to show them that we have a lot more work to do.”

He might have been right — for one match.

Springfield lost its season opener at Hope International, an NAIA team. But the Pride, now 23-1, hasn’t lost since and, accordingly, has been ranked No. 1 in every AVCA poll this season.

Which sets up an interesting end to this regular season.

On Friday, Springfield plays host to Rivier (17-10) and then next Wednesday second-ranked SUNY New Paltz (21-4), which just happened to beat Springfield in last year’s NCAA title match, comes to the western Massachusetts city.

Earlier this season, Springfield swept Rivier on January 21 and won at New Paltz in four on March 1.

Then the Pride finish the regular season by playing at another DIII, MIT, before going to the EIVA’s NJIT.

Undoubtedly Springfield will get a bye into the quarterfinals for the NCAA Division III Championship, which, coincidentally, is at Springfield April 28-30.

Springfield coach Charlie Sullivan addresses his team//Springfield photo
Springfield coach Charlie Sullivan addresses his team/Springfield photo

“All of the returners on our current roster have been in the national-championship environment. Last year was just like all the others,” Sullivan said. “There is an excitement about participating in the national championship that is really great and we hope to have the same opportunity this season.”

Those opportunities are more or less an annual affair for a team that competes as an independent.

“We’re kind of like the Notre Dame of Division III volleyball,” Springfield sports-information director Brian Magoffin said with a laugh.

Before the NCAA took over the men’s event, Springfield in 2010 won what was then the Molten Invitational National Championship and made it to the 2011 title match.

Then the Pride won the NCAA title in 2012, beating Carthage.

Springfield beat Nazareth in the 2013 championship match.

And even with a record of 27-7 in 2014, it won it all again, defeating Juniata.

The tables turned the past two seasons, as Springfield lost to Stevens Institute in the 2015 finale and then to New Paltz last year.

That team lost three seniors, Eric Johnson, Greg Woods, and Julian Welsh-White, who were major contributors. Woods, a right side, was second in kills, while Welsh-White averaged more than a block a set.

Springfield setter Luis Garcia Rubio/Springfield photo
Springfield setter Luis Garcia Rubio/Springfield photo

But Sullivan’s incredible Puerto Rican pipeline made sure the Pride wouldn’t miss a beat. The Springfield roster has eight players from Puerto Rico, including five of the seven starters.

The leader is senior Luis Vega, an outside hitter from Corozal, P.R. He has a team-best 261 kills, averaging 4.21 kills per set. His next-closest teammate is Ricardo Padilla Ayala, a junior outside from San Juan, has 157 kills and is averaging 2.45 per set.

Senior Trevor Mattson, a right side from Redlands, Calif. is averaging 2.60 kills. Sophomore Kyle Jasuta, a middle from Manhattan Beach, Calif., is hitting. 588 and has 46 blocks, four solo. And Jonathan Rodriguez Lopez, a sophomore middle from Bayamon  near San Juan, is hitting .487 and leads with 48 blocks, eight solo.

Ayala leads with 39 aces and has 91 digs. Sergio Figueroa Velez, a junior outside from San Juan, has 36 aces. And Vega has 32 aces and is second only to libero Eli Irizarry Pares with 107 digs. Pares, a sophomore from Adjuntes, P.R., has 131 digs, 2.45 per set.

Setter Luis Garcia Rubio, a senior from Bayamon, not only averages 10.60 assists per set, he’s averaging more than a dig a set and is third in blocking with 37, five solo.

His team leads the nation in hitting percentage, opponent hitting percentage and win percentage.

“Even though we have been winning we know there are plenty of things we can do better,” Sullivan said.

“I know we are attacking at a very high rate (.425) and people might think our offense is our main focus, but our point scoring when we serve has been our main focus this season.”

This year the NCAA field has been expanded to 12 teams and the top eight will gather in Springfield for the quarterfinals, semifinals and final on three consecutive days.

The Pride, ranked No. 1 now and likely then, is looking forward to a homecourt advantage.

By the way, that first loss? In five, and Springfield came back the next day and swept Hope. And since then, the only teams to even win a set against the Pride are New York University, New Paltz, Lasell College, and Marymount University.

“Our expectations for the rest of the season are to take advantage of our opportunity and prepare our hardest to play the best possible volleyball every time we take the court,” Sullivan said.

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