It was the fourth set of the NCAA men’s volleyball championship game between Long Beach State and UCLA, and the local kids were trailing 17-13. I should have been beginning to write my story or trying to read the lips of the Long Beach coaches across the court from me.
Instead, as the 49ers’ freshman serve sub and Hawaii native Ethan Siegfried ripped an ace, I was thinking about my father-in-law.
Alfred “Mits” Higa was the biggest volleyball fan I knew, a longtime coach at Lynwood High who grew up around the sport in Hawaii before coming to the mainland when he joined the Coast Guard. He went to Long Beach State in the early 1950s, shortly after the university opened and more than a decade before its first official men’s volleyball team took the court in 1970.
He was a loyal 49er fan and remained one until he passed in February of 2015. Yes, he cheered for the basketball teams and was always happy to see the Dirtbags doing well, but he loved volleyball most and he imparted that knowledge and passion to his daughter. That meant that when she and I started dating in 2002, she knew more about volleyball than I did. It also meant that as I began my career as a sportswriter in 2008, he was often in the stands when I was covering a Long Beach State volleyball match.
Over the years it became a nice tradition, having a postmatch debrief with him. Sometimes my wife would sit with he and his friends while I worked. He got a kick out of the fact that I got to interview some of his favorite players and coaches and I enjoyed having something small and safe to talk to him about at big family holiday gatherings.
Before he passed away I was already telling him about the amazing class the men’s volleyball team had coming in, with TJ DeFalco, Josh Tuaniga, and Kyle Ensing rated the nation’s top three recruits. All three were the kind of players he appreciated, and I know he would have loved Tuaniga’s creativity and how well-rounded DeFalco is as a player in an era of increased specialization.
He never got to see them play in black and gold, something that I’ve thought a lot about the last three years as that trio has racked up All-American honors, as DeFalco and Tuaniga were named National Player of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and of course as they won the national championship on Saturday.
Grief is a place as much as it is an emotion or a process, and the games we enjoyed attending were one of the places I kept mine. But those matches have also become a celebration for me, a place where I can clearly picture his comments or his smile after a big rally. As the last few years have unspooled, volleyball and football games have been a place where memories are a comfort, and conversations left unfinished can continue—in my head, at least.
So on Saturday, when Siegfried ripped an ace that began the 49ers’ dramatic comeback, I marked it on my notepad. Then I heard Mits’ voice in my head, in his thick Hawaiian accent, make one of his favorite running jokes. It was a remark he’d make about any player from Hawaii: whether it was National Player of the Year Taylor Crabb or an unheralded freshman service sub like Siegfried, he’d crack, “Ah, a local boy.”
In the hour after Siegfried’s ace, the men’s volleyball team came back and won its first national championship since 1991, and the first NCAA title for the school since 1998.
After I finished typing up quotes at the press conference and asking players to describe emotions they weren’t capable of putting into words, I hugged my wife and my kids—Mits’ daughter and grandkids—and drove us all back to Long Beach. When we got home my wife and I shared a laugh and a long hug talking about how much fun he would have had at the match, with his family. Of course, we both felt like we spent the evening with him anyway.