The 2018 Long Beach State men’s volleyball national championship season is not a Cinderella story. However, the 49ers played like rabid underdogs against UCLA on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion where championship banners hang like pieces of art in a museum of historic success.
Mike and I fought for five years at the Long Beach Press-Telegram to get Long Beach State more prominently displayed in the sports section and online. It didn’t work. Our editors chose USC and UCLA over LBSU every time, which made Saturday’s win feel all the more appropriate and fulfilling for the entire 49er family. It was like watching the younger brother finally beating the older brother.
LBSU overcame the Bruins, their history, their home crowd and their 18-16 lead in the fourth set. The 49ers won 25 of the final 43 points played on the way to their first NCAA national championship since Misty May-Treanor led the women’s volleyball team to the top of the mountain in 1998.
Those two teams have a lot in common, just like most of the championship teams in this city. They did it the Long Beach way, and every great Long Beach team has what I like to call The Five F’s.
A few years ago after a CIF-SS playoff game, Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson said of playing against Long Beach Jordan High football player John Timu, “You can’t take a breath when you’re facing that guy.”
That’s what I think of when I think of Long Beach speed. It’s so elite, and so relentless, that it doesn’t allow opponents one second to gain composure.
That’s how LBSU won the serve/receive battle with UCLA. In layman’s terms, their serves were just faster and more consistently accurate. Freshman substitute Ethan Siegfried’s jump serve was key for the 49ers in the fourth and fifth sets.
Mindset can’t be found in the statistics, but sports fans know it when they see it, and everyone at Pauley Pavilion saw it from All-American setter Josh Tuaniga when his service ace ended the fourth set in the 49ers’ favor. It was in his eyes.
I know it’s not a hot take to say a more fierce competitor has an advantage, but it’s just as obvious when a team doesn’t have that edge or killer instinct.
LBSU alum and professional beach volleyball veteran Brittany Hochevar said last week that she plays a Long Beach State style, and to her that means, “We like to push the envelope. It’s being fearless.”
Last week, I wrote about senior Matt Butler and The Kitchen. They are the energetic LBSU men’s volleyball bench, and they were in rare form at UCLA for the NCAA Final Four. Butler orchestrated the support from the sideline while leading the Long Beach crowd in chants before serves. The second umpire even had to warn the LBSU bench in the fourth set that their celebrations were getting a little too wild. That didn’t stop them.
“They create that energy, and that energy has been so important to us,” LBSU coach Alan Knipe said. “At home it’s a little easier to generate that emotion, but when you’re on the road it’s nice to have a group of guys down there that aren’t afraid to let everyone in the gym know that they’re here to support the other guys in black and gold.”
This one is self-explanatory. Having a coaching staff full of alumni with elite players from the local area makes it a lot easier to have a tightly-kit squad.
5. The final F is not a word or phrase we can print here. Suffice to say, it can be substituted by ‘Long Beach vs. Everybody’ and forget everybody else.
The best Long Beach teams play with a chip on their shoulder. They take pride in being disrespected or overlooked. They play for the city, and all of the gritty determined teams that fought against the odds and bigger schools before them.
“Congratulations to Alan and his team,” Dirtbags coach Troy Buckley said on the team Twitter account. “Gritty and grindy kind of epitomizes what we want our program to be and what we’ve tried to do for a long, long time.”
That’s how the best Long Beach teams view themselves. That’s just the Long Beach way, and it works.