History has its eyes on the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team, and the 49ers are staring right back, unblinking.
Last weekend they overcame a big hurdle with a pair of wins over No. 4 UC Irvine, bringing the No. 1 Long Beach squad to a program-record 21-0. By contrast, every other team in the NCAA’s top 15 has at least four losses this season. The wins over Irvine didn’t come easy, and the 49ers went five sets for the first time this season in a home win over the Anteaters before taking them down in four in Irvine.
“It wasn’t perfect, it was a struggle, there was some adversity,” said 49ers coach Alan Knipe. “That’s good.”
Because 16 of his team’s 21 wins have come via sweep, Knipe has been vocal about being happy to see his team pushed and challenged. At times this year he’s chosen to not call timeouts during opponents’ runs, hoping to see mental toughness from his team. As such, it wasn’t surprising to see him crack a smile about going five sets.
“It was great for us, especially because we won the fifth set,” he said. “We need those adversity moments.”
Standing between Long Beach and an undefeated regular season (something the program has never seen happen) are a pair of matches against UC San Diego this week, and then a pair of slugfests in Hawaii against the No. 7 Rainbow Warriors.
After that, the 49ers will host the Big West Tournament April 19-21, likely receiving a bye into the semifinals on April 20. Beyond that is the NCAA Final Four, where the 49ers will try to win their first national championship since 1991.
Last week, though, there was just Irvine, and a pair of matches that could have gone either way and ended the historic win streak. In the five-setter, the 49ers actually dropped a close first set before rallying back to wins set two and three by a combined score of 50-31. They dropped the fourth but came right back at it in the fifth, winning 15-9.
There were more than 2,000 fans in the stands despite it being the school’s spring break.
“It was nice to have the crowd behind us,” said Jordan Molina, the libero who recorded a career-high 13 digs in the match. “Shoutout to all the freshman for giving me their tickets so I could get my whole family and all my coworkers in.”
The 49ers’ reigning National Player of the Year, TJ DeFalco, once again proved to be the nation’s best in the two matches. In the five-setter he had 22 kills (.326 hitting), seven digs, five blocks, and five aces. The next night in Irvine it was 19 kills (.333 hitting), eight digs, five blocks and an ace.
As is typical for DeFalco, he shrugged off any complimentary words after the match.
“The guys passed the rock really well and obviously Josh made some amazing sets,” he said.
His setter and teammate since their high school days, Josh Tuaniga, might be DeFalco’s best competition for Player of the Year this season. Tuaniga’s sets yielded .457 and .477 hitting efforts from his team and the 49ers lead the nation in hitting percentage by a wide margin, while he leads the nation in assists per set.
All of those factors–along with the nation’s best serve, the nation’s best block, the nation’s best passing, and eye-popping numbers from opposite hitter Kyle Ensing—are why nobody has been able to touch the 49ers this year. The UCSD Tritons are the next team to give it a try, with a match in San Diego Friday at 7 p.m. and then a return trip to the Pyramid Saturday at 7 p.m. in the team’s final home regular season contest.