It was a night they’ll be talking about for a long time. Inside their home arena, the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team became the first program in school history to win back-to-back NCAA championships, taking down Hawaii in the Pyramid in a battle of the two best teams in the nation. Hawaii took the first set before Long Beach rallied to win it, 23-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-23.
With the two best teams in the country on the floor, a huge crowd, and a second NCAA trophy, it was an epic end to what has been a truly golden chapter in the school’s athletic history. The senior class led by TJ DeFalco, Josh Tuaniga, and Kyle Ensing will graduate having played in four Final Fours, won back-to-back national titles and set a new school record for consecutive home wins at 42.
“They did it the right way, they were very unselfish, they worked hard, and they brought their teammates along,” said Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe.
After the nets had been cut down, after the trophy had been passed around, after hundreds of hugs and pictures, that senior trio joined Knipe for the postgame press conference. It was a rare grouping of historic talent: DeFalco a two-time National Player of the Year (and MVP of this year’s NCAA Tournament), Tuaniga last year’s National Player of the Year, and Ensing this year’s Big West Player of the Year. All three will be headed to Anaheim shortly to join the USA National Team and begin preparations for this summer and the 2020 Olympics next year.
Hawaii head coach Charlie Wade said twice earlier in the week that he thought this year’s Long Beach State team was one of the best–if not the best–in the history of the sport.
“These guys have moved the mark like no other group has,” said Knipe. “Final Fours, national championships, player of the year awards. More importantly, they energized volleyball across the country. This group will go down as the group that moved the mark the farthest.”
When the evening began, it didn’t seem like it would end in tears of joy for Long Beach. Hawaii came out driving hard, pounding aggressive serves and taking advantage of a Long Beach State side that seemed tense in front of their home crowd. Long Beach fell behind big in the first set but rallied to make it close at the end. Then Long Beach won the second set thanks in part to back-to-back aces from Tuaniga; it looked like another five-set thriller (which would have been their sixth in a row) was in order. When Hawaii took a 5-0 lead in the third set, however, it was time to dig deep or pack it in.
“We talk about grit every day,” said Tuaniga. “We had to buckle down and execute.”
That’s exactly what they did. The Long Beach State serves found their targets and took Hawaii out of system, and the Beach’s Big Three took over. DeFalco finished with 20 kills on .516 hitting, four assists, three aces, five digs, and three blocks. Tuaniga guided Long Beach to a .427 attack with 43 assists, three aces, five digs, and three blocks. Ensing had 13 kills, three digs, and three blocks.
All three of them had major starpower moments. Ensing had critical kills late in sets, Tuaniga and DeFalco both had back-to-back aces, and everyone stepped up late in each frame. Knipe had told the media on Friday that the winner would be whoever could execute when it was 23-23, and he was right. A Hawaii service error and a block from Tuaniga and Nick Amado sealed the second set; a hitting error and a kill from DeFalco sealed the third; and two kills from DeFalco put it away in the fourth.
Knipe doesn’t like to compare teams across generations because of the major evolution the sport has gone through.
“But I’ll say this, I’ve been around this game for a long time, and I just know for all the teams I’ve been around, I’d like to suit up this team against any of them and see how it works out,” he said.
The scene afterwards was hard to conceive of. The players were on the floor they practice on five days a week, a floor they’d won 42 matches on dating back to 2017, and suddenly there was an NCAA trophy. Suddenly they were cutting down the net at center court of their home court, and their athletic director Andy Fee was tearfully hugging Knipe just a few seconds’ jog from both of their offices. The banner that will be raised next season will go up directly over where they were celebrating the win.
“Winning back to back national championships especially in our senior year is one of the most exciting times of our lives,” said Ensing. “Winning it here has been a blessing.”
While all the players celebrated with their families, that celebration carried a joyous surprise for DeFalco: all six of his siblings made the trip to Long Beach to see him play in the final game of his college career.
“For me living here and being here somewhat on my own for the majority of college and then to look up and see my literal entire family was very special to me, I didn’t know they were all going to be here,” he said. “Something like that just makes it that much more special.”
Asked about the future of the program and who the leaders on next year’s team would be, Knipe politely declined to comment. “To get too much into that wouldn’t be fair to these guys and this moment and what they’ve accomplished,” he said.
What they’ve done, of course, is to win, and then win again.
After the Pyramid had been closed down and the garish blue NCAA floor pulled up, the team pulled off on a bus to do something no team in the history of the school had done before: carry on an NCAA championship winning tradition. Just like last year, Long Beach State went to EJ Malloy’s near campus to celebrate, as city councilman Daryl Supernaw and others poured into the pub to take pictures with the team and the trophy.
Knipe lifted a glass and offered a champagne toast to his assistant coaches, players, and fans, and ended it with a message that gives some idea as to his plans for the future, both for Saturday night (and Sunday morning), and for 2020.
“Congratulations to all of you and the entire LB nation,” he said. “Let’s have a great night, let’s be safe, and let’s do it again!”