In the late 1970s, the NCAA rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird elevated the sport of basketball. The national championship game that year was the most-watched basketball game ever, and as their rivalry moved on to the NBA, it’s widely considered responsible for launching basketball into the “major sport” status it enjoys today.
The exact opposite thing is happening at Long Beach State right now for the sport of men’s volleyball, but it could end up with the same result. The 49ers find themselves in a rare position, with the two best players in the NCAA on the same roster in reigning National Player of the Year TJ DeFalco and setter Josh Tuaniga.
DeFalco and Tuaniga aren’t rivals—far from it. The juniors are actually close friends who’ve been playing together since they were 11 years old, winning championships and bringing crowds at the high school, club, and now collegiate level.
“The longevity of their relationship and the high level they’ve been at makes it incredibly special,” said 49ers coach Alan Knipe. “I don’t have a comparison for it.”
The two met on a sand court at a public park in Temecula when they were 11, competing together as a duo that was virtually unstoppable from the beginning.
“It was so easy back then, that’s what made it fun,” said DeFalco. “I was 5’4”, he was 5’4”, a lefty and a righty playing together on the beach.”
When DeFalco started playing indoor at 13 years old, it was at the same club as Tuaniga, and the duo helped lead The HBC Volleyball Club to two gold medals at the USAV Boys’ Volleyball Junior National Championships. The duo didn’t exactly live down the street from each other—in that time Tuaniga’s family moved from Temecula to Hemet to North Long Beach to East Long Beach, eventually settling about five minutes from Long Beach State. As Tuaniga attended Stanford Middle School, he had no idea his future college was mere minutes away.
When it came time to enroll in high school, DeFalco went to Huntington Beach High and Tuaniga went to St. John Bosco. It wasn’t until their junior years that Tuaniga transferred to the Oilers and the program lifted off into the stratosphere. In their final two years of high school DeFalco and Tuaniga led Huntington Beach to an 80-0 record and two CIF, State, and national championships.
In 80 matches over two years, they went to five sets just once, and lost only 12 total sets. They also created a buzz rarely seen in high school volleyball, with a packed, sell-out crowd for the CIF and State championships their senior year.
In the back of their minds in high school was the idea of continuing to play together, and continuing to dominate.
“Imagine if we stick with it,” said Tuaniga. “Imagine what we can build.”
Their first two years at Long Beach State they helped lead the 49ers to a 52-12 record and two NCAA Final Four appearances, and DeFalco was named the National Player of the Year last season as a sophomore. One of the things Knipe appreciated about their history was that because they were used to winning championships, both DeFalco and Tuaniga were frustrated with the way those seasons ended.
This year, all involved are hoping for a different outcome. The 49ers enter next week’s NCAA Championships as the No. 1 seed, with an overall record of 26-1.
The duo are the clear-cut top two players in the nation in whatever order anyone chooses to put them in. DeFalco has actually improved in some statistical areas on his record-setting sophomore campaign, and Tuaniga has guided a 49ers offense that has four new starters to a nation-best .379 attack percentage.
Not surprisingly, they’re rooting for each other to win Player of the Year.
“He is 100% the Player of the Year,” said DeFalco. “If I had a vote right now, I’d vote for him. I was so stoked for him getting the Big West Tournament MVP, it’s about time they looked at the real MVP.”
“Guys would want to play at TJ’s level on his bad days,” said Tuaniga. “The fact that he consistently has this high level of volleyball every single time he steps on the court is mind-boggling.”
DeFalco has been the one who’s won the individual awards during the pair’s 10-year career together, but Tuaniga said that’s never bothered him, in part because of the bond between them.
“TJ is such a great teammate to me, he shows me the love when he wins those awards,” said Tuaniga. “When he wins an award he makes me a part of it.”
Their impact has gone well beyond individual awards, or even on-court results. The 49ers have seen a huge increase in attendance the last few years, just as Huntington Beach did while they were Oilers. The duo, along with their other All-American caliber teammates like Kyle Ensing, have helped create an excitement around their sport because of the creative (and dominant) way that they play.
“TJ and Josh invigorated the athletic department coming in as far as the possibilities of volleyball,” said Knipe.
They think about it, too. During the Big West Tournament championship press conference, the ever-analytical DeFalco rattled off that the team has enjoyed a 180% increase in student attendance this year.
“They take pride in what they’re doing for us and the program and the university,” said Knipe.
It may be in the future that they take pride in the way they represent their nation. DeFalco has already been a member of the national team and that honor can’t be far off for Tuaniga.
“That would be a dream come true, representing our country with him,” said DeFalco.
For now, the 49ers’ dreams are focused on next week. They’ll face the winner of UC Irvine and Harvard/King on Thursday at UCLA at 5 p.m. If they win, they’ll be in the national championship match on Saturday at 7 p.m.