Kenosha, Wisc. - April 17, 2010 - Behind a career-performance from tournament MVP Alberto Bravo, the Springfield College men's volleyball team claimed their sixth national championship on Saturday night after defeating UC-Santa Cruz in four games in the 2010 Molten Division III Men's Invitational Volleyball Championship. After dropping the first set, 30-23, Springfield won the final three sets 32-30, 30-26, 30-22.
The Pride was now won six national championships, five under the direction of head coach Charlie Sullivan, and two in the past three years.
"This championship is a testament to our constant hard work throughout the year," said Sullivan. "We continued to get better and this group of guys has had a great attitude this year and it has paid off. Even after dropping the first set, they stuck to our goals, and stopped the guys we needed to stop, as we got our block going. The match was decided in the second game, where I thought we made some really incredible plays. I am really proud of these guys, they truly did a phenomenal job."
Bravo was dominant from the opening whistle as he finished the match with a career-best 24 kills to go along with 11 digs and four blocks. AJ Nally, an All-Tournament Team selection, recorded 20 kills, hitting .308 to go with his 12 digs, while classmate and fellow All-Tournament team honoree Eric Shoemaker had a sensational match with 57 assists and 17 digs for the Pride. Cal Palumbo chipped in with 11 kills and six blocks, while fellow middle Greg Falcone added eight kills and six blocks of his own. Alex Harrison totaled 13 digs for Springfield as well as he had another great performance on defense for SC.
"What Alberto did tonight was a microcosm of our team and our program. All year he has strived to get better everyday at practice and to become a more consistent volleyball player," described Sullivan. "What he did tonight on the court was a phenomenal performance."
The Pride started the match up in business-like fashion as it opened up a 5-2 lead after a Bravo kill. Springfield increased its lead to 13-8 after Nally and Palumbo combined for a double block, forcing a Santa Cruz timeout. Nally pounded out a kill to give SC a 14-8 advantage, but Santa Cruz answered with a huge 9-0 run to take a 17-14 lead. Austin Einhorn changed the momentum of the match as he posted a pair of solo blocks in the spurt to highlight the run. The Banana Slugs continued to dictate the flow of the opening set, despite Bravo’s best attempts as he recorded eight kills in the stanza. Rick Schroder and Eric Rowell closed it out with a double block on Bravo to give Santa Cruz a 30-23 win.
A back and forth second game saw Springfield grab an early 9-8 lead after Shoemaker recorded a kill. However, using tough serving and timely blocking, the Banana Slugs poured on a 6-2 run, capped off by a double block from Sullivan and Einhorn to snag a 14-11 lead. Springfield rallied to tie the game at 21-all after a Palumbo kill, only to have a La Cavera kill and Bravo error provide Santa Cruz with a two-point cushion at 23-21, forcing Sullivan to call a timeout. SC's backs were against the wall, trailing 29-27, and the Banana Slugs had the serve for the second set. However, UCSC recorded a service error, only to then have Nally manufacture a difficult kill to even the set at 29, as Nally began to put the team on his back. A Schroder kill gave the Banana Slugs set point at 30-29, only to have Nally once again come through in the clutch to even the set at 30. Nally used the block to get a kill to give Springfield set point, and after Brad Seislove came into serve, Santa Cruz committed an attack error to even the match at a set apiece.
"This feeling I have tonight is so great, something completely different from what I felt when we won in 2008. We have grown up so much together and to win like this feels amazing," said senior AJ Nally. "All this year we have stuck together and it has been a team effort. This is a celebration of what we have worked for all year. In the second game when we were down 29-27, I knew it was time for me to step up and make the big play that our team needed. With the group of guys around me on the floor, we were able to take the second set and have the momentum shift in our favor."
After having a quiet match through the first two games, Falcone turned it on in the third to make his presence felt. With the score tied at 14-all, SC took advantage of a pair of Santa Cruz attack errors and used a Palumbo kill to gain a 17-14 lead. Nally put home another kill to give Springfield a 21-16 advantage, forcing yet another Santa Cruz timeout. A La Cavera kill brought UCSC within two at 24-22, only to have Falcone hit his stride down the stretch with a trio of important kills to give SC a 30-26 win, and a 2-1 set advantage.
"This year, I felt like the leader on a team, someone who could take charge of the guys, compared to two years ago when I was younger and just trying to do my part to help the team win," explained Shoemaker. "Tonight I felt I was able to make some important plays and be a leader more than I have been in the past. After dropping the first game, I knew we could play with Santa Cruz, it was just a matter of putting a couple of good plays together. With the second game on the line, I felt I needed to step up my intensity, get a couple of digs, and really help change the momentum of the match."
Springfield’s defense set the tone early in the fourth as Nally and Palumbo combined for a double block to give the Pride an early 6-3 lead. Palumbo combined with Shoemaker for yet another block to hand SC a 10-5 lead, forcing Santa Cruz into a timeout. From there, Springfield continued to roll as a Nally kill gave Springfield a 10-point cushion at 22-12, and the AVCA National Player of the Year capped off a match with a cross court kill to complete the fourth set, 30-22.
With his 12 digs in the match, Nally now owns the program record for digs in a season as he passed the former mark of 275 which was set by Charlie Haer in 1998. To date, Nally has 277 digs this season.
Springfield and Juniata College have each now won six Molten Championship titles, as they have won the tournament all but two times since its inception, and have won every Molten tournament since 2000.