In its toughest test of the season, the No. 1-ranked Long Beach State men’s volleyball team battled back from down two sets to one against No. 3 UC Santa Barbara in a thriller in the Walter Pyramid in front of 1,500 fans. The match was a possible Final Four preview and an exhibition of two teams at the very top of the sport, with Long Beach up against the ropes before storming back to win a 22-25, 25-15, 26-28, 25-17, 215-11 thriller.
“It was a great match, it was the match we thought it would be,” said Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe. “I never go into a match hoping to find ourselves down, but these are big moments. These test the belief in one another and the trust we have in one another to stick to it even if it’s not going well on the scoreboard.”
The 19-0, top-ranked Long Beach State squad has largely sailed through the season on calm waters so far, having only dropped one set prior to Thursday night’s five-setter. Setter Josh Tuaniga said he was confident the experience of having to win consecutive sets would pay dividends.
“It was about the response tonight, we got some adversity we haven’t seen much of,” said Tuaniga. “It’s just an opportunity to grow a little bit more, we get to check ourselves to see if we step up or we don’t.”
Nobody stepped up more than Kyle Ensing, who had a career night with 27 kills on .471 hitting, seven digs, three aces, and four blocks; that tied his career-best mark in kills. Tuaniga had 55 assists and 10 digs, with four blocks and two aces.
“Kyle was really good at every area of the game and for big parts of the game he was carrying us,” said Knipe.
Long Beach State played well enough to win the first set, hitting .433 in the frame; that was canceled out by three UCSB blocks (to none from LBSU) and seven service errors. Long Beach easily won the second set, and was up 23-18 in the third before tough serving from UCSB keyed a 6-0 run and an eventual comeback win, putting Long Beach in a 2-1 hole.
Senior Nick Amado (11 kills on .556 hitting, four blocks) stepped up with some emotional words in the team’s huddles at that point, referencing the program’s five-set national championship win last year.
“We’ve been in this situation before in a match with much higher stakes, we just have to realize we’re comfortable in this situation right now, we train for this, we prepare for it,” said Amado. “We said we have to have enough trust in each other to grind this out.”
Thanks to some crisp play, it ended up not being that much of a grind. Long Beach easily won the fourth set and went up big, early in the fifth, holding an 8-3 lead at the switch. TJ DeFalco, playing at below 100% health-wise, still ripped off 12 kills and eight digs, while Louis Richard got two big kills to start the fifth set, offsetting a tough night for him offensively. Libero Jordan Molina had two receiving errors in the first three sets but was perfect in the fourth and fifth, finishing with 12 digs.
The two teams will have another shot at each other Friday night in Santa Barbara for a quick turnaround rematch.
“The best thing for both teams is we get to turn right around and do this again,” said Knipe. “If you’re a competitor, these are the matches you enjoy.”