UCLA men’s volleyball coach John Speraw, also the current USA national team coach, didn’t mince words in describing this year’s Long Beach State national champion.
“I’ve said before that this is one of the best collegiate teams I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Long Beach took their place in history by beating the Bruins for the national title. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at championship week.
As the team was holding its usual early-afternoon practice, the AVCA All-American committee announced that Long Beach had five All-Americans on the roster, five of whom will return in 2019. That was just one piece of “noise” the team tried to keep out of its locker room, where the focus instead was on reviewing film and self-critique.
At the end of practice, head coach Alan Knipe went over the schedule for the week. There was no piece of bravado or anything about the speech that would indicate the team would be playing for its first NCAA championship that Saturday—and that’s exactly how the coaches wanted it.
All-American setter and 2018 National Player of the Year Josh Tuaniga sat out of Tuesday’s practice with some soreness in his knee, something Knipe admitted concerned him a little. After the team’s practice was over, the players gathered their belongings and headed for the bus outside the Pyramid, which was waiting to whisk them away to Westwood for championship week.
Asked if there was a farewell ceremony planned for them, Knipe smiled tightly. “I hope not,” he said. The coaches wanted it to feel like just another road trip as much as possible.
There was indeed a small gathering of athletic department staff waiting for them between the Pyramid and the bus, as well as the school’s nationally-ranked softball team, which formed a tunnel and did some gametime chants for the team as they boarded.
After a quick trip to Westwood the team watched Tuesday evening’s first round of the NCAA Tournament, which saw BYU and Ohio State advance—the 49ers knew they’d be facing the big serve of the Buckeyes on Thursday night.
The team’s first full practice in the Pauley Pavilion was Wednesday morning, and the 49ers spent plenty of time practicing passing. As every coach of every team stressed during the week, college men’s volleyball is at least 90% serve/pass at this point. Last year’s Long Beach team was arguably the best in the country but was swept out of the Final Four by BYU because they couldn’t handle the Cougars’ serve, a fate this year’s team was determined to avoid.
After practice the 49ers held a press conference with a dozen or so media members, then walked back to their bus. Because Ohio State was practicing as they departed, they walked under the Pauley bleachers so as not to interrupt.
That evening the team returned the arena’s Pavilion Club, where the NCAA Championship banquet was held. There, the team’s five All-Americans were honored and Tuaniga received his National POY trophy.
Thursday morning was more serve and pass practice, in advance of that night’s Final Four match against the Buckeyes. In front of a crowd of several thousand, the 49ers would prevail in four sets, with plenty of drama.
There was some in the stands as well, where the 49ers’ student section was moved from its usual spot right behind the end line up into the higher seating section, to their protestation. Long Beach State super-booster Bruce MacRae went over and spoke with the security guard who moved them—within a minute the students came back down for the rest of the match, cheering Long Beach State on to a win and a berth in the national championship.
No surprise, Friday practice featured more focus on passing—UCLA had three elite servers on the roster and the Long Beach State coaches knew that would be their biggest challenge. They weren’t worried about beating the Bruins if they were able to run their offense in system, nor were they worried about the big crowd they knew UCLA would bring.
There were almost 7,500 fans in the building for the national championship, and it was loud—by the end of the match, the 49ers had won the national championship and silenced the UCLA fans in attendance, a big group that included recent NFL Draft pick Josh Rosen.
After the match a Bruins security guard pulled Tuaniga aside and said, “I’m a UCLA fan but you’re a badass.”
After the press conference was over the team made its way back to the locker room with the championship trophy and pieces of the net that had been cut down. With loud music blaring, the locker room was like a 49er family reunion—alums David Lee and Dustin Watten were relaxing with the team’s assistant coaches in the front of the room while the players celebrated in the back.
After Knipe arrived the music was turned down and he delivered a moving speech that unified the team’s “staying present” philosophy from throughout the year, a process-oriented approach that paid off with the NCAA trophy that sat on the floor in front of Knipe while he spoke.
After he was done, the team came together with water bottles splashing over top of them and chanted “Us! Us! Us” as they danced together. In the coming hours the team would travel by bus back to Long Beach, be picked up at the 405 offramp by an LBPD police escort, and make their way to EJ Malloy’s where confetti and champagne toasts and a few hundred lively fans awaited them.
Before that, they huddled in the locker room one last time as a team, savoring the moment. Then Knipe said, “Alright let’s get out of here, let’s get back to Long Beach.”