There were so many moments when the match could have slipped away, when the evening could have soured and the season could have come to an end in bitter disappointment. Instead, the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team relied on the grit and determination they’ve developed over the last year and made history.
Thanks to a thrilling comeback five-set win over UCLA on Saturday night, the 49ers won the school’s first NCAA championship since 1998.
The 49ers were facing elimination trailing 18-16 in the fourth set, down 2-1 in the match, but came back to win the set and take the fifth set, winning 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-12.
“You get some failure, what are you gonna do with it?” asked 49er coach Alan Knipe after the match. “Our guys decided to have some determination and do something about it. That was a gritty performance.”
In the first set it looked like the 49ers would cruise to a historic win, as they hit .478 and only allowed consecutive points to the Bruins a single time. Long Beach controlled the first frame from the end line and handled UCLA’s service perfectly.
Things changed in the second set with booming serves from UCLA’s Mica Ma’a, Daenan Gyimah, and Dylan Missry, who combined for seven aces but more importantly made it hard for the 49ers to pass the ball and get into their offense.
UCLA coach John Speraw has been generous in his praise of the 49ers this week. “I’ve said before that this is one of the best collegiate teams I’ve ever seen,” he said earlier in the week.
As such, Speraw knew his team could not simply line it up and play with the 49ers—they needed to gamble on big serves to try and keep National Player of the Year Josh Tuaniga from running a clean offense. In the second and third sets, that strategy paid off.
“I wanted to go out there and bomb serves, that was the only way we were going to win,” said Speraw.
After a decisive third set win and a 17-13 lead in the fourth set, it looked like it would happen that way. But Knipe has talked all year about the importance of his team learning to live with discomfort, and to make plays even when things weren’t ideal.
Service sub Ethan Siegfried dished out a 3-0 run to get Long Beach back in the set, and then Tuaniga served a 3-0 run capped by a TJ DeFalco kill that put the 49ers up 19-18. UCLA hit four straight service errors late in the set but it was still tied 24-24 before Tuaniga proved why he deserved National POY. First, the junior dumped a ball for a point, then he ripped a serve for an ace to force the fifth set.
“Honestly, when I served that ball and it landed, I don’t know how close it was, but I thought it was out, I was devastated,” said Tuaniga. “And then I saw the linesman point that flag…it was all good from there.”
The fifth set was dicey as well, with Long Beach falling behind 7-5 and 9-8. But Tuaniga helped serve up a 4-0 that included three blocks. A solo stuff by DeFalco put Long Bach up 12-9, and it went to 13-11 after a UCLA service error. A kill from Kyle Ensing and another from Nick Amado made history, and brought a few hundred Long Beach State students (plus the mayor, plus the school’s president) onto the court to celebrate the win.
“Our guys deserved this,” said Knipe. “One hundred percent they deserved this. They earned it.”
Ensing led the way with 20 kills, five digs, four acesand four blocks, backed up by DeFalco’s 18 kills, 12 digs, four blocks, and two aces. Tuaniga guided the team to a .325 attack clip while throwing down three kills of his own.
We will have more special behind-the-scenes coverage in the coming days.
NCAA Men’s Volleyball Championship: Long Beach State vs. UCLA
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