For the past few years, the men’s volleyball world has centered around Long Beach. Alan Knipe’s program at Long Beach State won back-to-back NCAA championships in 2018 and 2019, hosting their most recent national title match inside Walter Pyramid. With the COVID-19 pandemic cutting the 2020 NCAA men’s volleyball season short, Long Beach and the rest of the country has been devoid of any volleyball action since March.
This past weekend, however, some of the sport’s biggest names returned to the court in Salt Lake City for a showcase hosted by the National Volleyball Association (NVA). The NVA is an emerging professional men’s volleyball league in the United States, with eight teams located across the country. With the 2020 season canceled due to the pandemic, the league instead opted to host a showcase event under the guidance of operations director Cynthia Buggs. Local volleyball fans may remember Buggs from her days at Long Beach Poly and ultimately at Long Beach State, where she played two seasons under Hall of Fame coach Brian Gimmillaro.
“We wanted to make sure we finished the year with something, so we decided on a showcase event,” explained Buggs. “This is the first event we’ve had with all eight teams and it was highly competitive. We had a lot of national team players in this event, players with international experience, a lot of players that played D1 volleyball and some really high-level D2 and D3 athletes as well. The competition was really great.”
Across the eight teams there were nearly a dozen representatives from the Long Beach area. There were six athletes from Long Beach City College, three from Long Beach State, and even some Moore League ties as well. The LA Blaze had the largest contingent of Long Beach talent, led by Charles Belvin (Lakewood/LBCC), Andrew Pearson (LBCC) and Cynthia’s younger brother Marques Buggs, who played at Long Beach Poly and LBCC.
The Long Beach State contingent was well-represented on the All-Tournament team, where middle blockers Antwain Aguillard and Nick Amado both received recognition for their standout play during the showcase.
Sunday’s championship match was a meeting of two unbeaten teams, the Utah Stingers and the OC Stunners. The Stingers featured former Lakewood High standout Storm Fa’agata-Tufuga, and earned a four-set victory in the championship match. After high school, Fa’agata-Tufuga relocated to Utah to play collegiate volleyball at BYU, and he was happy to welcome so many friendly faces.
“It was nice. It was a little piece of home here in Utah,” Fa’agata-Tufuga said. “It was good to see friends and familiar faces again … I feel like I played to the best of my potential, and honestly I played out of my mind. I was having fun, I was getting hyped up, I was excited. I felt like I was playing my best tournament ever.”
Fa’agata-Tufuga said he plans to pursue a professional playing career once he’s finished with college, and he feels the tournament gave him the opportunity to stack up against some top competition and showcase his talent.
“After this weekend, I see that I do want to play professionally somewhere,” he admitted. “With the NVA, and these tournaments with all these good teams, it’s a great opportunity for all of us to be able to get picked up. It’s an opportunity to fulfill that dream I’ve always had to play professionally in Europe or somewhere else.”
Amado went head-to-head with Fa’agata-Tufuga in the final match on Sunday, and he brings a different appreciation for the tournament. After winning a national championship as a senior at Long Beach State, Amado signed a professional contract in Spain. The COVID-19 outbreak occurred just before the start of his second season, and he was able to return to the US just before the lockdowns took effect. He was thrilled to face some top competition back in his home country.
“It was great,” Amado said. “It’s cool to see outside of collegiate volleyball that there’s some high-level volleyball that’s starting to form here in the States. The sport has grown so tremendously over the past few years that you have teams in Utah, players coming out of Chicago, and teams on the East Coast. The sport has gotten so big and it’s consistently competitive. For guys to be able to play here in the States in front of their families is a great thing.”
Amado pointed to the elite talent featured over the weekend, including US National Team players like Jake Langlois and Russell Holmes. Amado plans to continue playing with the NVA into next season, in an effort to help grow the league and the sport.
“It goes beyond me. As much as I love playing volleyball, I really want to do this to see the sport grow here,” Amado stated. “There’s so many good players here that will attract crowds. When I was talking to Jake after the game, I said, ‘Do we really want to go to Poland?’ Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great experience playing overseas, but to have the opportunity to play here is bar none, you can’t really compare it to anything.
“I really hope the showcase this weekend really opens up the eyes of a lot of volleyball players here to get this thing moving a little bit. And I think it will.”
Photos courtesy NVA USA.