When the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team hosted Senior Night against Hawaii a few weekends ago, there were more than 4,600 fans in attendance, the largest men’s volleyball crowd in school history. As that epic crowd came to a hushed silence for the national anthem, there may as well have only been two people in the entire building: senior setter Josh Tuaniga and his little brother, Jake.
Jake Tuaniga was standing on the side of the court holding a microphone, singing a beautiful, deep rendition of the national anthem. His brother stood at the middle of the court with his teammates, going through his usual pregame prayer. This time, there were tears in the 2018 National Player of the Year’s eyes.
“I was emotional,” he said. “He’s singing and I’m just thinking, ‘You’ve got this brother, you’ve got this.’ I get more nervous than he does. He always tells me, ‘I don’t get nervous, I can’t see anything.’”
Jake has been blind since birth, a condition that has required several surgeries. A month before Senior Night, he had a surgery with a particularly difficult recovery time that left him inside the house almost all of the time. Josh was surprised to see him at the match in the first place, much less singing for the biggest crowd in school history. In the postgame press conference, he was emotional speaking about it.
“To see him here knowing what he’s been going through, I can’t even say what that means to me,” he said.
“Joshua looks up to Jake because he understands what he’s going through,” said their father, Junior Tuaniga. “Any time Joshua has a low moment he always has Jake to encourage him and lift his head up. He didn’t know Jake requested that day and that night to sing for his brother.”
A Volleyball Family
There might not be more of a “volleyball family” anywhere in the world than the Tuaniga clan. The patriarch and matriarch, Eperu “Junior” and Tinei Tuaniga, actually met during a volleyball open gym at the Naval Base in Long Beach. After moving around Southern California for a few years–meeting the DeFalcos in the process and forming a friendship that would prove historic in the sport–the pair brought their five children back to the city where they met, settling in East Long Beach a few minutes away from the Pyramid
Their household buzzes with volleyball talk. Tinei is the club director for Apex 1, where eldest son Gus Tuaniga is a head coach of the elite girls’ team that Mia Tuaniga plays for. Mia will be a high school senior next year, and the elite setter is committed to Long Beach State. Josh is an assistant coach on the team as well, and breaks down film with Mia after any match he isn’t able to make in person.
“It’s a lot of volleyball,” Josh admitted with a laugh.
“We don’t ever get tired of it because our kids are in that level of very competitive volleyball, we talk volleyball every single day and it’s a lot of fun,” said Junior.
When the Tuanigas aren’t at a practice, a match, or talking about the sport at home, they have Bible study, or go to the movies together. They enjoy going to the Cerritos Harkins, where a descriptive audio feature lets Jake enjoy all the big releases with his family.
“He loves going to the movies,” said Josh. “I think it must be quite funny when people see us at the movies with our blind brother, but he loves everything about it. After his surgery that’s one of the things that was hard–he was home all day, he was stressed out. I didn’t like seeing my brother like this.”
Anyone who’s seen the Tuanigas after a match know the family is close. There’s always a large contingent of family and friends supporting Josh at every Long Beach State match, and that support carries him home, as well, since Josh is still living with his parents and siblings near campus. He said there was a thought of moving out this year for his senior year of college but he decided against it, and is happy he did.
“The biggest thing for me is that it keeps me grounded,” said Josh. “There’s a lot of things that happen here–national champs, player of the year–but then I go home, I clean my room, I make sure the dishes are taken care of. I hit a reset button. I’m with my mom and dad who have taken care of me since I was born, I go back to my values.”
A Unique Leader
Head coach Alan Knipe has had one consistent problem with Josh since he arrived at Long Beach State–but it’s a good problem to have.
“To a fault, he takes all the responsibility on himself,” said Knipe. “Any time anything goes wrong, he says it’s his bad. If a ball is hit out after a good set, we literally have to tell him, ‘No no no, you can’t take responsibility for that.’ It’s a wonderful trait, but we also don’t want him carrying everyone’s burdens, which is what he does. He’s a consummate teammate.”
“He’s strong, he’s a rock for our team,” said TJ DeFalco, the 2017 and 2019 National Player of the Year, who’s played with Josh for years as youth players, in high school, and at Long Beach State. “You couldn’t ask for a better teammate.”
Those around Josh describe him as an ideal athlete: gifted physically and mentally, and humble. Although most people in Southern California mispronounce his family’s last name (in the Samoan language, it’s Too-ah-neeng-ah not Too-ah-neegah), he has never once corrected anyone. That attitude of humility comes from the top down.
“Too-ah-neegah is close enough,” said Junior with a laugh. “That’s good enough for us. I’ve had it said worse, it’s really all good.”
“As a father and a husband myself that family is really special to witness,” said Knipe. “It’s a unique thing to have the family structure be so strong and supportive and loving but so respectful to elders as well. It starts with Junior and Tinei, I strive to have the same feeling in my own family.”
Josh isn’t just nice, of course–he’s also perhaps the best setter of his generation. At five-time Olympian David Lee’s Long Beach State Hall of Fame induction, he pointed at Josh and said, “That guy is the future of USA Volleyball.”
“Josh can do anything he wants in this sport,” said Knipe. “Guys like David Lee or Paul Lotman or Dustin Watten, they look at Josh and they’re so impressed with his leadership and his delivery of the ball, you just know it’s going to translate to the next level. And then every time you interact with the kid you’re thinking, ‘This might be the greatest human I’ve ever met.’”
That person will soon be splitting from his family, at least physically. For him to travel internationally and play, he will have more time alone than he is used to, or perhaps comfortable with. On Senior Night with his ever-present family around him, it was hard to imagine Josh on the court without them. Of course, as the national anthem plays before whatever match he’s in, he will close his eyes, and say their names.
“I say a prayer to God and make sure that everything I’m doing is for him,” said Josh. “I take a moment to remember some of my ancestors, those that were here before me. When my family isn’t with me I pray for them, for their health and their safety. They’re always with me before I play.”