Springfield ends Hunter season, advances to NCAA Tournament semifinals

Sam Leventhal | Off the Block special contributor
@Sam_Leventhal

Springfield, Massachusetts — The Springfield College Pride and the Hunter Hawks first faced off on March 4. In the midst of an incredible win streak for the Pride, they took down the Hawks 3-0. The two teams met for a second time this season in front of a roaring Blake Arena crowd in Springfield, Mass. and the result was no different.

Hunter coming into the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals after a sweep against Penn State Altoona had its season come to an end against No. 1 Springfield.

The Pride held the top spot in the AVCA national coaches poll for every week of the season, while five players performed to All-America standards. Setter Luis Garcia Rubio and outside hitters Ricardo Padilla Ayala and Luis Vega all played their way to the first-team while libero Eli Irizarry Pares and middle blocker Kyle Jasuta earned second-team honors.

“I’d say that it was definitely based on the rest of the roster,” Jasuta said. “There’s a huge depth to our roster that anyone on the floor put in my position would have received that honor.”

Jasuta, who modestly put aside his All-American selection, led the way for the Pride hitting at an .889 clip swinging for eight total kills and had a .778 percentage from the service line. Vega, who is second in the nation in hitting percentage, finished the match at a .786 clip, while Garcia Rubio added 32 assists to the mix.

“We practice like we play,” Jasuta said. “There’s never an easy moment where you can take a breath.”

Springfield approached this matchup with no difference from the others played this season. Coach Charlie Sullivan has preached playing hastily to his team and turned that style of play into a winning formula.

“It’s very impressive,” Sanchez said. “This is the second time that we’ve played them this year, we knew that they were going to come like that and they definitely brought it. It’s fun to play at that speed.

Hunter, which was able to keep up defensively, received at a .737 percentage and added 22 blocks. However, the team did not convert on their solid defensive performance, striking the ball at a .167 clip collectively.

“Defense has been our go-to the whole year,” opposite Ben Crusinberry said. “We knew, especially playing a great offensive team like Springfield, we have to get every ball up that we can and for the most part I think we did a good job of it. We needed to get those digs and turn them into points and today we just couldn’t do that.”

The Pride opened up the first set with a kill by Padilla Ayala, splitting the Hawks defense. Springfield carried their momentum early opening up a 5-2 run to begin the match. Padilla Ayala continued his strong first set performance stuffing the Hawks middle at the net, leading to a Vega ace forcing a Hawks timeout.

Out of the break, Padilla Ayala capitalized on an overpass from the Hawks leading to a powerful, back row, kill from Vega. At 13-7, Vega finds the floor on another Hawks overpass leading to back-to-back aces for the Pride bringing the score to 15-7. The Pride would carry their momentum all the way to the end of the set, finishing at 25-13.

Hunter struck first to open set two, but the Pride’s momentum proved too strong to bring to a halt. The Hawks kept the game close to open the set, but following the media timeout, Springfield began to pull away and closed out the set by a score of 25-13.

The Pride’s Vega continued to play with great power to open set three and shot a rocket that bounced off the chest of Hunter’s Nicolas Sanchez. About half way through the set, head coach Charlie Sullivan subbed in libero Johjan Mussa Robles, outside hitters Jason Weedon, Trevor Mattson, Billy De La Espriella, and setter Mike Neary. The Pride would ride out the tail end of the set on the fire produced by the Springfield depth completing the sweep with a third set score of 25-16.

Behind the Hawks only All-American, Steven Tarquinio, Hunter earned a record of 26-6 throughout the regular season. On his way to a 2017 AVCA First-team selection, Tarquinio has posted 249 kills at a .432 clip and 86 block assists in his senior campaign.

“Ever since I came to Hunter that has been a goal of mine,” Tarquinio stated. “I couldn’t actually do it without my teammates. My teammates got us into the top 10, top eight, helped me beat nationally ranked teams and get recognized. These guys supported and carried me to get that recognition.”

Although Hunter’s season has come to an end, the Hawks are ready to get right back to work on Monday. The Pride, however, will play Stevens Tech in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Saturday.

“Springfield’s been the number one team all year and they deserve it. It’s never fun to lose, and unfortunately we got matched up with the No. 1 team today and we had to try to battle them as best as we could,” Hunter coach Austin Voges said.