Long Beach State Volleyball

Feature: Josh Tuaniga’s Toughness Carried Long Beach To Title

By any measure, the spring put together last year by Long Beach State junior setter Josh Tuaniga was special, and historic.

The Long Beach native became just the seventh setter to win the National Player of the Year award from the American Volleyball Coaches Association  after a record-setting year that saw his team break its own NCAA record for hitting percentage with a .379 clip on the year. That was despite Tuaniga working with several new starters and the 49ers playing the toughest schedule in the country.

It wasn’t just the numbers, though. Tuaniga played with a level of creativity in his game and a passion that led LBSU alum and three-time Olympian David Lee to point him out at this year’s LBSU Hall of Fame dinner and proclaim, “That guy is the future of USA Volleyball. No pressure.”

All of the above would already have made Tuaniga into a near-legend as he approaches his senior season this year. But his revelation that he played on a severe injury in the national championship last year catapults him into a different stratosphere.

“It was at practice the day before our Final Four match with Ohio State,” Tuaniga said. “I jumped up for a block and I landed straight legged and my knee buckled, pretty bad. I was full of adrenaline so I finished the drill. But as soon as that wore off I had a tough time walking. I couldn’t even stand on it straight.”

Tuaniga had partially torn his patellar tendon, a serious injury that would require surgery in the offseason. Coming on the eve of the Final Four, the injury felt like a cruel joke: the team had gone into the Final Four as the top team in the nation the year before and had been upset in the semifinal. This year they looked like a juggernaut, right up until that awkward landing by Tuaniga.

“For 48 hours, we’re thinking we won’t have the National Player of the Year setting our offense,” Long Beach State head coach Alan Knipe said. “It didn’t feel right. I just felt so incredibly disappointed for our team and for Josh.”

Tuaniga went to the Long Beach State training staff and was in nonstop rehab mode, trying to get his knee flexible enough to play, a process that continued right up until the match began. Meanwhile Knipe and his coaches prepped the team to play with backup setter Carlos Rivera.

“It didn’t hit me until I called my parents on the day of the match,” Tuaniga said. “They were obviously worried and scared for me a little bit. That hit me. I just kept telling myself I’m going to play, I’m going to play.”

Before the match, Tuaniga approached Knipe to give him the thumbs up or thumbs down.

“Typical Josh, he put his arm around me and said, ‘Don’t worry coach, I’m good, I got it,’” Knipe said. “He would’ve wanted to go out there in a full leg cast, he’s easily one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around.”

Tuaniga was only playing at about 60%, according to his and Knipe’s estimation. But the National Player of the Year still put his team on his back, including in a decisive fourth set between the 49ers and UCLA which forced the fifth set the Beach would win to claim the national title. Tuaniga had a dump and an ace to close out a 28-26 win for Long Beach.

“Yeah that felt pretty good,” Tuaniga said with a smile.

Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.