The Long Beach State men’s volleyball team is off to a perfect 6-0 start this season and still have yet to lose a set. On Saturday they proved emphatically that they deserve their unanimous No. 1 ranking with a sweep of UCLA on the road at Pauley Pavilion, a rematch of last year’s national championship. The 49ers won a hard-fought first set and then took the Bruins’ spirit in a 29-27, 25-22, 25-17 win.
Setter Josh Tuaniga is the reigning National Player of the Year, and is once again leading the nation in assists (11.73 per set) as he’s guided his team to a .412 clip this season.
“I’m super proud of the way we fought out that first set,” said Tuaniga. “They were bombing away with their serves and we stayed in it, my boys fought it out.”
UCLA did indeed bomb away, ripping serves between 70 and 75 miles per hour according to the Pauley Pavilion radar gun. The 49ers struggled to see the serves in real time, something head coach Alan Knipe said was likely attributable to the hype surrounding the title rematch. UCLA ripped off six service aces in the set, an extremely uncommon number for Long Beach to give up. The 49ers fell behind 8-4 and trailed 20-17 late in the set, when they began clawing their way back.
TJ DeFalco, the 2017 National Player of the Year, said he didn’t think he and his teammates would have won that set two years ago, or even last year. They kept plunging ahead with the confidence earned by winning last year’s NCAA crown.
“It wasn’t like the sappy, ‘Here we go boys’ or ‘We got this, we got this,’” he said. “I just think we all had the confidence we could do it and to just keep talking and doing our same preparation before every point, understanding we had to adapt and that we could.”
As Long Beach State handled the serve better, they were able to feed Tuaniga passes that allowed him to run their offense, the most efficient in the nation. They trailed 25-24 but fought off the set point and then took the lead twice before kills from DeFalco and Kyle Ensing finished it off.
That was, for all intents and purposes, the end of the match. Long Beach State took a 12-7 lead in the second set and then put down a UCLA comeback late in the fram. The Bruins came back to tie it at 20 before Long Beach dropped the hammer with two kills from DeFalco and a triple block. The third wasn’t particularly competitive as the fight had gone out of the Bruins, who hit just .160 in the frame, to Long Beach’s .538.
It was a shining match for the team’s star players as Tuaniga finished with 26 assists, six digs, and three blocks, DeFalco finished with 13 kills (.500 hitting), five blocks, three digs, and an ace, and Ensing had six kills and four blocks. The team’s middles Simon Andersen and Nick Amado combined for five kills on 11 swings, and five blocks each.
One of the has keyed this year’s start is the play of Louis Richard, who had eight kills on 15 swings with no errors, as well as four digs and a block.
After six matches on the road, Long Beach State will finally return home this week for what is sure to be a big night in the Walter Pyramid. The team is hosting USC on Friday at 7 p.m., and will raise their NCAA banner (the team’s first since 1991 and school’s first in 20 years) prior to the match with a brief ceremony.