It was an historic night in the Pyramid as the top-ranked Long Beach State men’s volleyball team swept UC San Diego to claim the first-ever Big West conference championship. The win improved the 49ers to 23-0, setting a new program record for consecutive wins and giving head coach Alan Knipe his 301st win, just one night after he joined the 300-win club.
Long Beach State is still the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation and is the only undefeated team in the country—every other ranked team has at least five losses.
“It’s a big deal,” said All-American setter Josh Tuaniga about his team claiming the title. “It’s a product of the work we’ve put in—I’m stoked that we were able to come out with this.”
The 49ers still have a pair of road matches next week to close the regular season as they’ll travel to Hawaii for matches on Friday and Saturday. After that, the Pyramid will play host to the first-ever Big West Tournament April 19-21, with the winner nabbing an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
Long Beach State will have a bye into Friday’s Big West semifinals, where they’ll play the lowest-remaining seed.
Saturday’s match wasn’t just the championship-clincher, though, it was also Senior Night in the Pyramid. Knipe has been talking all year about the quality of his team’s depth, pointing out that the intensity in practice is as high as it is in many matches.
That depth was on full display against the Tritons—at times Knipe had four seniors on the floor, playing a few players that don’t often see the floor. One of them, Jason Willahan, had three kills on six swings with an assist, a dig, two aces, and two blocks.
“I wanted to give everyone a glimpse of what I see in practice every day,” said Knipe. “The guys who came in were so excited and they did a great job.”
Nine different 49ers had at least three kills including Davis Cannon (five), Willahan (three), and Zach Gates (three). Matt Butler played some rotations at libero and had three digs. Tuaniga kept the offense humming as the 49ers hit .452 on the match despite the shifting roster, holding San Diego to .127.
At one point Long Beach State had four backup players on the court but still led 20-9 in the third set.
“Those guys are the reason we’re able to play at a high level in our gym,” said Knipe. “They want to show everyone that they’re more than capable.”
The 49er stars were excellent as well, as TJ DeFalco had 10 kills on .625 hitting with two aces, two digs, and two blocks, and Kyle Ensing had 10 kills on .571 hitting with three digs and two blocks. Tuaniga’s 34 assists, 11 digs, a block and an ace paved the way for the 49ers’ offense, which is on pace to set a new NCAA single-season record for hitting percentage.
For Willahan and the other 49er seniors, the opportunity to star in a Saturday night regular season finale was incredible.
“It’s awesome being out there,” said Willahan. “Being on the other side of the net from these guys every day in practice is a lot of stress. To be on the other side and get to hand it out feels really good—it’s a relief.”
A pair of complete game shutouts from pitchers Cielo Meza and Jessica Flores helped No. 18 LBSU win the Big West doubleheader against UC Riverside last Saturday at the LBSU Softball Complex. The 49ers (31-7, 5-0) completed the sweep and extended their winning streak to 13-games with a 4-2 win on Sunday thanks to Lauren MacLeod’s three-run home run.
LBSU scored early and often in the first game on Saturday for a 6-0 victory behind Meza’s fourth consecutive shutout. Nichole Fry hit a leadoff home run in the second game for the only offense in a 1-0 win behind Flores.
“Both of our pitchers did a great job,” LBSU coach Kim Sowder said. “We kind of thought going into they day that it might be a pitcher’s duel, so it was nice to get some early runs.”
Meza (17-2) extended her scoreless innings streak to 27 while allowing a pair of hits and striking out six. Last year, she tossed her first collegiate no-hitter against UCR.
“I leaned from last year, and I knew they were beatable, so I just went out there and pitched my game,” Meza said.
Taylor Rowland got LBSU on the board in the first inning with a single that scored Fry and Naomi Hernandez, and she belted her ninth home run of the season in the third inning to break the game open.
Fry hit her third leadoff home run of the season to start the second game.
“I was just trying to hit a line drive, but I let the ball get deep and just drilled it,” Fry said.
Flores (7-1) pitched around three hits and four walks while striking out eight. She also started a pair of 1-6-3 double plays in the last three innings.
“Our pitching styles are completely different,” Flores said of her and Meza. “Her process is her rise ball. My pitches are my screw ball or my changeup. We both had the game plan to go straight after them, but with different styles.”
Flores added that seeing Meza’s performance inspired her again.
“Cielo always pumps me up when she’s pitching,” Flores said. “I look up to her and try to do as good as she does because she’s always killing it.”
Troy Buckley is doing everything he can to change the fortunes of his beleaguered Dirtbags. On Sunday, the head coach wore a uniform top in the dugout for the first time since he was an assistant coach under Mike Weathers.
It didn’t work.
The Dirtbags (12-20, 1-2) dropped the Big West series to UC Irvine (17-13, 3-3) at Bohl Diamond at Blair Field with an 8-0 defeat. LBSU went 2-for-14 with runners on base, and stranded five in scoring position. The Dirtbags only scored three runs in the series.
“We actually had better at bats, but with runners in scoring position we reverted back,” Buckley said. “It’s been that way most of the year, and that snowballs.”
Clayton Andrews, Jacob Hughey and Leonard Jones each had two hits for the Dirtbags. Starting pitcher Tyler Radcliffe didn’t get out of the third inning after giving up four hits and two runs, and reliever Adam Seminaris gave up three runs in three innings. All four Dirtbags pitchers gave up a run, while three UCI pitchers only surrendered one walk.
It is the 13th time that LBSU has been held to one or no runs this season. The 12th time was on Saturday when Clayton Andrews led the Dirtbags to a 1-0 win that evened the series. The junior lefty struck out a career-high 11 in eight shutout innings. Shortstop Santino Rivera drilled a one-out double to left in the third inning, and scored on a Jarren Duran single.
Andrews, who lowered his ERA to a team-best 2.66 on the season, was named Big West Pitcher of the Week. He is the first player ever to win both Big West Pitcher and Player of the Week honors in the same season. The Big West weekly awards date back to 1987.
LBSU took an early 2-0 lead on Friday night thanks to Jacob Hughey’s RBI double, but UCI tied the game in the sixth off of starter Zak Baayoun, and scored the game-winning run in the ninth on a sacrifice fly. LBSU left the potential game-tying run on second base.
“The margin of error is tinny, and I think that’s how the whole Big West will be this season,” Buckley said.
The Dirtbags also got some bad news on the disabled list. Senior shortstop Laine Huffman is officially out for the season with a shoulder injury, and he will apply for a medical redshirt season.
“It a loss of good at bats, speed and leadership,” Buckley said. “We’re a bit of a MASH unit.”
Women’s Water Polo
The No. 14 49ers (11-12, 2-2) fell to No. 5 Hawaii 12-6 on the road last weekend. LBSU seniors Virginia Smith and Raney Remme each scored two goals.
LBSU (9-8, 3-2) rebounded from a 4-1 loss at San Diego with a 4-2 win over San Diego State in nonconference action over the weekend at Rhodes Tennis Center. Sophomore Maren Helgo recorded the lone point in the loss, and won a three-set contest in the victory.
Track & Field
The LBSU women finished in second place, and the men finished third, at the Big West Challenge in Irvine last weekend. On the women’s side, sophomore Anaya Alexander won the 400-meter (54.45) with the third-fastest time in school history. Courtne’ Davis tied her PR (11.50) to win the 100m, and she also won the 200. The LBSU women swept the high jump podium with Brian Plamer, Meghan Sweeney and Delaney Smith.
LBSU finished fourth out of 17 teams at the Seattle Redhawk Invitational at Chambers Bay Golf Course. Sophomore Hunter Reed finished in the top-10 individually for the second consecutive week.
In other news, junior Joe Fryer was named the Big West Men’s Golfer of the Month for March after winning the Sacramento State Invitational. He also finished in the Top 10 at the GCU Invitational. This is the second monthly award for Fryer this year.
The No. 6 49ers (18-4) were shutout in a loss at No. 1 UCLA last weekend.