USA Men’s Volleyball team winners while losing to Russians
By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist
KAZAN, Russia – Only two years ago, Mike Pelletier lay in a hospital bed with stomach pains so bad he couldn’t even think about sports.
Midway through his junior season at Springfield College, Pelletier was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a form of Crohn’s Disease that took away the rest of his junior season and threatened to end his collegiate volleyball career.
He lost 60 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose. He needed a blood transfusion to keep him alive. He was put on a dramatically restrictive diet. “I couldn’t eat anything for a long time,” he said.
Forget volleyball, his job for the next six months was to get well.
“It was a pretty rough time,” said Pelletier after Springfield’s once-in-a-lifetime match against the Russians in pool play at the World University Game. “I didn’t think I’d be able to play volleyball for a few years, maybe not at all. But I got through that and was able to experience this.
“Now, I don’t want to take any of this for granted. I’ve seen teammates of mine go down with injuries and I know that I’ll be there for them. I’ve experienced the time off, the mental aspect of not being sure if you can come back. I was lucky to have a lot of people help me with my recovery and so now I’m trying to do the same thing for other people.”
While he was sick and on a diet that felt like cruel and unusual punishment, Pelletier watched a lot of late-night TV and saw a lot of commercials for food, the kinds of food a hungry person craves. He felt as if someone was intentionally messing with his head.
But he made it out from under his disease and after he was out of the hospital and was cleared to exercise again, Pelletier’s parents bought him a gym membership. The gym became his second home.
Slowly, painfully patiently, Pelletier got stronger, gained back his weight and got back on the floor with his teammates as they went for their second consecutive national title.
“It took me a couple of months to get back, to get my muscles and joints moving again,” he said.
Let’s fast forward to this Monday. Pelletier and his Division III-champion Springfield (Mass.) College teammates were playing the Russians, a national volleyball team that is as fierce and strong and talented as any team on the planet.
This was a mismatch, but it also was an opportunity, a test against the best. How often in a lifetime do most of us get such a chance?
Testing your limits. Being unafraid to face the best? Isn’t this the essence of sports?
Across the shirttails of their jerseys the name of the team’s school is printed. But also in the front, the logo of the United States is stitched. These players weren’t just representing their school. They were representing all of U.S. volleyball as well s their country.
Springfield College, nicknamed the Pride, losers of only eight games in the past two years was playing the legendary Russians, playing against professionals, playing against athletes who have had years of international experience.
This wasn’t just David and Goliath. This was David vs. the Miami Heat. D-III vs. a dynasty.
Before the match, coach Charlie Sullivan told his team that if it played a rally 98 percent perfectly it would lose the point, a daunting thought.
Springfield/USA was going to have to play with unprecedented patience and poise. The Pride was going to have to play the best game of its life just to stay competitive.
“Our 18-year-old players were playing against their professional players and some of the best players in the world,” Sullivan said.
The Russians beat the Americans with their old world power, but also their new world finesse. In front of its hometown fans Monday, Russia won in straight sets – 25-13, 25-18, 25-9.
Still, the U.S. team was beaming after the game, like a fighter who had survived 12 rounds with Muhammad Ali and maybe even had rocked the champ a few times with solid body shots.
“It was an unbelievable experience, something we’ll never forget,” said middle blocker Greg Falcone, a four-time all-American. “We never thought we’d get the chance to play against the best team in the world. And this was so much fun. It was astronomic. They have Olympic gold medalists, things like that. They do this for a living. We do this for fun.”
This team that plays a schedule that includes Elms, Vassar, Sage, Hunter, MIT and Daniel Webster, hung tough against a world power. It never looked intimidated.
“It was really fantastic to play against some of the best players in the world,” Pelletier said. “We’re going to take this into every other volleyball experience we’ll have. We can say, in a few years, when they’re on TV at the Olympics that we played against them.”
This wasn’t another version of the Miracle on Ice. Russia was too good, but sports are more than just medals and rings. For Springfield this was about belief, not about bling.
“It was a great experience for us to see what volleyball at this level is like,” Sullivan said. “I think we exposed some of their weaknesses with some of the things we wanted to do. And overall our guys had a blast. They gave a good effort and were committed to giving it their best shot.”
The Americans tried to beat the Russians with line shots and tried to keep the ball away from Russia’s huge, 6-foot-8- and-taller front line.
They had their moments. Jimmy O’Leary served the only U.S. ace of the match. O’Leary also slammed a kill shot to the floor late in the first set. And O’Leary blocked a Russian shot to cut the deficit to 13-11 in the second set.
“We are on national television,” Sullivan said. “We’re wearing USA and Springfield College on the front of our shirts and our names on the backs of our shirts, so we were representing a lot of people. And all the people wanted to see us do a really good job and have a really good attitude and a good process. That’s what we talked about.
“Since we got here our team has been on Cloud Nine. It’s been awesome. Minute-to-minute, these experiences are lifetime memories and treasures for our guys.”
This is the other theme for these Games. U.S. volleyball chose not to send a Division-I powerhouse like U.C. Irvine. But Springfield was able to help the U.S. delegation by making the commitment to come here and reward its two-time champions.
The mission of all universities is to allow their students to grow and educate themselves far beyond the classroom walls. Springfield understood this.
Two years ago, Mike Pelletier was so sick, he didn’t have the luxury even of considering a comeback. Two years ago, Springfield was just beginning its D-III reign of terror.
Now the Pride has tested itself against the best. The players learned a lot about themselves. This team lost three times in a week. But don’t ever call the Springfield Pride losers.