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53 Weeks A timeline of Springfield College's most challenging year of athletics

By Jack Margaros

Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, 12 p.m. STAGG FIELD

Stagg Field has a different energy. It is Homecoming weekend and the Springfield College football team is riding a three-game winning streak ahead of Saturday’s game against Catholic University.

Alumni have already started to filter in, proudly sporting jackets, t-shirts, hats and gloves emblazoned with Springfield College branding.

Inside the locker room, there are many different personalities on a team that suits up nearly 100 guys. Each player has a unique way of becoming locked in. There are those who are relaxed, kicking back, messing around with their teammates.

Others have their headphones in, blasting music beyond comprehension, looking like they could run through a wall at any moment.

“We know not to mess with those guys,” said Mikey Blazejowski, the team’s long snapper. “They look like they want to rip someone’s head off.”

That’s not who Blazejowski is, though. As warm ups progress, he notices some old friends down near the end zone: Jake Englentine, Joe Chaves and Jordan Wilcox — former teammates of his that were part of an undefeated 2017 squad that won the NEWMAC title.

He couldn’t help but pause his routine and catch up. It was a special encounter. Blazejowski hadn’t seen them since they last strapped up together.

This is part of what Homecoming represents, a time for reconnection and making distant memories feel present. The football team’s network, “The Brotherhood,” is arguably the tightest of them all, “stuff that words really can’t explain.”

The teams went out for the coin toss, and Stagg was packed. Student-athletes from other Springfield teams sprinted over from morning practices, drenched in sweat, lugging their equipment across campus. Showering was the last thing on their mind.

“Saturday on Stagg is a special day,” Blazejowski said. “(Head) coach (Mike Cerasuolo) says you only get ten (games) guaranteed every fall...You never know when your last time on the field is going to be.”

7 p.m. BLAKE ARENA

Similarly in Blake Arena that evening, the men’s and women’s gymnastics teams are gearing up for the 110th annual Home Show.

This is usually every gymnasts favorite event of the season, as is the case for Ali Rushlow. Though it is not an actual competition, hence lessening the pressure of a perfect routine. Home Show is one of Springfield College’s longest standing traditions -- a gymnastics jamboree of the sort. A month-long preparation unfolds on a two-night Friday-Saturday showcase.

All of the lights are shut off, except for one nearly blinding spotlight in the center of the gym.

That’s where the crowd is put in a state of awe. From flips to cartwheels to handstands, the gymnasts are putting on quite the display. There is one point where a gymnast flew so high to the point of nearly grazing the roof of Blake Arena.

“When you finally get to put (on the show) in Blake Arena, it’s crazy. It’s like no other feeling,” Rushlow said. “Just doing gymnastics in front of so many people and the spotlights on you, it’s so much fun.”

Friday, Nov. 8, 2019, 7:30 P.M. BLAKE ARENA

There was a similar atmosphere at Blake Arena less than two weeks later, when the men’s basketball team opened its season against cross-town rival Western New England. The game drew 1,200 fans to the Birthplace of Basketball to witness the remnants of an era.

Jake Ross, Heath Post, Trey Witter and Jake Jacobson — a transformative class of seniors — were starting their final campaign for the Pride.

It was particularly bittersweet for hoop superfans Buzzy and Barb Ernst.

Both graduated from the College in the ‘70s. Their relationship with the basketball team really blossomed in 1998 when Barb’s college classmate Charlie Brock took over the program. Buzzy and Barb were hosting a student at the time who played on the team. Naturally, they went to the games to support him and Brock.

The relationship took off over the years. Buzzy’s oldest nephew became team manager. Buzzy and Barb attended every single game, home and away. They occasionally hosted the team for dinner. They even traveled to Costa Rica with them in 2019.

In his own way, Buzzy looks at the players as his grandchildren, so he and his wife felt a special connection that night, seeing the Class of 2020 begin its final year.

Springfield was antsy to prove itself again. The Pride were one year removed from ranking as the No. 7 team in the nation to open the 2018-19 season. It was unranked to begin in 2019.

Still, the music blasted from the bowels of Blake Arena as if they were the best in the country; loose, but focused at the same time. As Daryl Costa slipped on his fresh game socks, shoes and Springfield jersey, he couldn’t escape the reality of how last season ended — an early exit from the NEWMAC tournament at the hands of the eventual champion: Emerson.

“We had to come back with something to prove,” Costa said.

As the team came up through the tunnel, fans roared. Costa spotted some of his classmates and friends herded in the middle of the bleachers — courtside.

The team fed off this energy, Costa says. It powered them to a 90-80 victory that night, where Ross went off for 34 points. Nothing out of the ordinary for Springfield’s all-time scoring leader. Post added 24 points to go with 14 boards.

For the ninth straight season, the basketball season started with a victory.

March 11, 2020

For years, sports has been the heartbeat of the Springfield College campus.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in March of 2020, that was taken away. Springfield College lost part of its fiber.

It happened in an instant.

As the coronavirus began its first surge across the United States, Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper called an emergency meeting among the community on the night of March 11, 2020. The virus had already reached Western Massachusetts and threatened to spread quickly.

The men’s volleyball team was not in attendance that night. It was on the way home from Lassell, having manhandled the Lasers, 3-0, marking the team’s fifth straight victory in sweeping fashion.

Matt Lilley remembers that night for a different reason, though.

The adrenaline of victory faded quicker than usual. Anxiety settled in. The team rode 70 miles back to campus in solemn silence. No one would have known they were 19-2, on the way to another deep run into the postseason, having not lost a set in nearly two weeks.

All that echoed on that bus was the sound of President Cooper’s voice addressing the community.

“We had one phone in the back and one phone in the front,” Lilley recalled. “Not knowing what was going on.”

The news could’ve been worse.

President Cooper decided to extend Spring Break an extra week to curb the possible spread of the virus, as a lot of schools did around the area. Although, Spring Break trips were going to be cancelled for spring athletes.

These trips are a staple to start the season. Teams travel to warm weather climates like Florida to play upwards of eight games in one week, in some cases. It was an opportunity to not only bond, but pause schoolwork for a week and solely focus on sports.

With no Spring Break trips on the horizon, there was still a possibility to get some games scheduled in Springfield. Athletes were asked to remain on campus, and would welcome opportunities to play if they could get opponents.

The coronavirus was still so new to the country at that time. New information emerged every hour it seemed. Plans changed quickly.

That was the case within hours of President Cooper’s meeting.

“Our plans changed three times,” Lilley said. “(Head) coach (Charlie Sullivan) was like ‘Hey, we might be staying on campus for this entire Spring Break. You can’t go home if you want to continue your volleyball season. No one can go.’”

Lilley and his teammates were committed to staying on campus and living by themselves for the extended break. Whatever it took to continue playing.

“And then an hour later, everyone was going home.”

Athletes were understandably not happy, but hopeful to continue their seasons after the break.

The next morning, Sullivan held a team meeting. Their season’s fate was dependent on the NCAA’s decision regarding March Madness. That set the tone for all sports.

College basketball’s biggest tournament was cancelled, and with that went the rest of college athletics.

In a span of 18 hours, the identity of Springfield College had radically changed.

The country went into a lockdown. Schools went virtual. Businesses asked employees to work from home. Lilley sat in his room and contemplated as the days went on.

March 26 was supposed to be a special day.

It was his 21st birthday. He and his teammates were supposed to be in New York City, taking in Times Square and playing Baruch University.

Instead, he spent that night on his couch, back home, wondering what could have been.

Another night that sticks with Lilley is April 18, the start of the men’s volleyball national tournament. Springfield is a perennial title contender and the 2020 season was no different. Ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time, the Pride were a favorite to bring home the school’s 12th national championship.

“Those two instances were like two tough days I had at home and I was like, ‘This is really something,’” he said.

Lilley was part of the last championship team, and knew his 2020 squad could reach that level. He, along with every other athlete at Springfield College, would go into a hibernation from competition for the next 367 days.

Dr. Craig Poisson, Springfield College’s athletic director, was crushed to make the final, gut wrenching announcement. He has been in the industry for three decades. Never before had he experienced something like this.

A year later, as Poisson reflected on just how difficult it’s been, he paused, only to stare down at his desk for ten seconds. An extended sigh followed.

He started, “It’s really difficult to answer that question because it's undefinable to describe how it’s been.”

“Rollercoaster-like doesn’t do it justice.”

As students returned to campus to start a new school year, the pandemic continued to rage. Fall competition was off the table. Students could not help but feel an amplified sense of loss as what would have been Homecoming passed by. Something was missing. Springfield College had committed over the summer to not participate in anything until at least the start of 2021.

Still, though, teams were allowed to practice. Larger teams such as football were split into different pod groups to not overcrowd facilities. Testing was mandated on a weekly basis. Masks were required at all times, even during vigorous activity. All of this took time for athletes to adapt.

The fall semester dragged. For some athletes, practice acted as a sanctuary, a chance to escape such a tumultuous time and inject some sense of normalcy into their lives -- even though it was a long, long way from the normal they once knew.

Costa sensed the mundane vibe around campus.

“I think that’s the keyword: energy. It’s just a whole different vibe on campus. It’s weird.”

Little things are what he craved the most. Team meals, sharing the weight room with different teams; just the ability to freely gather with his teammates.

On a game day pre-COVID, the basketball team made sure to snag a long table at Cheney to fit the entire team and shared a meal together.

Every Wednesday, the team used to lift at the same time as football. Costa would tease one of his best friends, Todd Rodgers, on the other side of the weight room.

Yo Todd, let me see you do something.

Sports were not completely shut down across college athletics in the fall like it was last spring. In fact, many Div. I schools were back in competition. College football carried on relatively normally. A portion of high schools brought back sports for the fall, as well.

It was discouraging for Poisson to witness other schools play full schedules, while he couldn’t get anything going at Springfield.

“It’s got to be frustrating if we’ve got a student athlete who’s at Springfield College who has a brother or a sister or a friend or a relative who’s in a Div. I program that’s competing and a sibling that’s in high school that's competing,” he said.

Although, high school and college sports are radically different, given that Div. I schools had resources that far outnumbered institutions like Springfield. Still, Poisson was eager to get his athletes back into a competition setting as quickly as possible.

On Nov. 2, the NEWMAC decided to suspend winter sports competition. The winter season caused the pandemic to worsen more than ever. There was optimism that winter sports teams could independently schedule games in February. That was quickly squashed when the positivity rate in Springfield and the state of Massachusetts skyrocketed.

Those independent matches were put off until April. Men’s gymnastics, however, proved to be ahead of schedule. There was no national meet at the end of the year, but the Pride was granted the ability to hold virtual meets.

It was something that had never been done before. Through a Zoom call, streaming software and iPad video, judges were able to score the meet in real time without having to be in the gym. It allowed Springfield to schedule opponents it normally wouldn’t, like Stanford and UC-Berkeley.

That’s how their season went: viewing the opponent through the lens of a projector.

“It was awkward, the first (meet),” sophomore All-American Dominic Ramalho said. “Just the fact that it was almost quiet while we were standing there waiting.”

It was really odd, saluting to an iPad instead of a human being.

Also, the team had been split into two practice pods since the beginning of the year. So the first meet on Feb. 17 also served as the first full team gathering.

Sports were back -- in a way -- a little over 11 months after they had been halted.

In the meantime, a lot of time and energy was spent towards convincing the NEWMAC to sponsor a spring sports season starting in March. Given most of the sports are outdoors, it was the best chance of getting some semblance of competition before the school year ended. Springfield College needed some sort of jolt.

“The only chance the spring had was we put an airtight document in front of the NEWMAC presidents, perhaps we can get enough to vote yes to spring competition,” Poisson said.

The document was nearly 50 pages long. It outlined how a potential spring season would operate and included immensely detailed health and safety protocols that were more strict than what the NCAA mandated.

For example, the NCAA return to resocialization guidelines for most spring sports calls for 50 percent of the student-athletes to get tested every two weeks. Springfield wanted to test all athletes twice a week. The officials for most of the spring sports, by NCAA guidelines, do not mandate testing, and the NEWMAC would.

“Is it a risk doing what we’re doing? Of course it is,” Poisson said. “But we’re taking all precautions possible to eliminate the risk.”

On March 1, the NEWMAC reached a majority yes vote, and approved a spring sports regular season and postseason — a truly huge step.

The games wouldn’t be normal, though, by any means. Negative tests were required all around, competition only happened on weekends and masks were still to be worn while competing. Without question, spectators were prohibited.

Ironically, men’s volleyball (the last team to compete before the shutdown) was the first team to host an opponent on March 13. After being approved to join a conference, the Pride welcomed Endicott for the first in-person athletic competition since the pause — 367 days later.

“It’s really something fantastic,” Lilley said. “We were kind of feeling this little numbness.”

That was because it was a game atmosphere they’d never experienced before. Blake Arena was never without fans when men’s volleyball was at home. Benches had never been distanced. Players couldn’t even warm up on the court at the same time or shake hands after the game.

“We try to stay away from each other as much as we can on the court but it’s tough to do,” Lilley said. “I think we all realized when we played Endicott that we had this weird anxious feeling.”

An odd atmosphere, but another step in the right direction.

A week later, Springfield College was up to hosting three events in one weekend. Women’s lacrosse and softball initiated their seasons with impressive wins — women’s lacrosse coming from behind in overtime to beat Babson, while softball swept WPI, the defending NEWMAC champion.

“We all talked about how grateful we are for this opportunity and for this experience,” Gillian Kane, who officially threw the first pitch on the newly renovated Diane L. Potter Field that weekend, said. “A lot of schools aren’t playing so just to get the opportunity to be out there together was amazing.”

Baseball followed up with a split doubleheader against WPI. Blake Hall was in danger of losing a window as Nick Fazio sent a towering fly ball over the left field fence, onto Alden Street in game one.

For 48 hours, Springfield College felt about as normal as can be. Some students couldn’t help but slow their walk, or even stop and look, as they crossed by Archie Allen Field. Townhouse residents gathered (within capacity limits and distanced) in the backyards to watch the women’s lacrosse game through the fence. Students from off-campus housing across the street even climbed on the roof of their house to get a full view of Stagg.

“Everything felt right. Everything just fell into place,” Fazio reflected.

Poisson still longs for the day when he can finally welcome back fans, and so do the players. That could come in the fall, as most of the country should be vaccinated, and life could start to fully return to normal.

After a year of intense adversity and pain, it would only make sense that the 2021 Homecoming weekend unfolds as a crisp, perfect New England Saturday. With alums sharing stories, ringing cowbells and watching football on Stagg Field before heading over to Blake to enjoy the 112th Home Show.

Sports fully back at Springfield College, just like it used to be.

Created By
Jack Margaros
Appreciate

Credits:

Springfield College Athletics, Jack Margaros, Evan Wheaton, Joe Arruda