The Long Beach State women’s volleyball team has a proud and trophy-laden history that dates back decades. Throughout that time, the Beach (formerly the 49ers) have run essentially the same warmup, a nationally-known progression of drills that began under head coach Brian Gimmillaro, who won three NCAA titles. Last weekend, fifth-year head coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer found herself in an unusual situation before the team’s annual intersquad Black and Gold scrimmage.
“Today we spent a lot of time re-learning our warmup,” she said. “We hadn’t done one in so long, you know?”
Indeed, 632 days will have passed between the team’s five-set loss to Santa Clara in the NIVC Tournament in December of 2019 and when they take the floor in Idaho for the Boise State Tournament on August 27–the longest layoff in program history. A lot has happened in that time, not just to the world because of COVID-19, but to the Beach as well.
The team graduated most of its known faces, and will suit up 22 mostly new players this year, including a whopping 14 freshmen. The team has just two seniors and two juniors on the roster.
“We’re just grateful that we’re healthy, we’re progressing, and we get to have a season,” said McKienzie-Fuerbringer. “Our core of older kids, sure we’d like to be further along, but we’ve done the best we could and we’re in a better position at this time of year than we were three years ago. So there’s progression there.”
Seniors Avery Nelson and Miranda Canez will start at outside hitter and middle blocker, respectively, while junior Kashauna Williams will remain a big arm as a pin hitter and junior Long Beach Poly product Dylan Dela Cruz will be a back-row contributor.
The setters will be freshman Kasia Partyka (from Poland) and sophomore Tia Chavira, with Partyka likely to earn the role as she continues learning the offense. The team had a difficult time getting her stateside from Poland with COVID-19 restrictions in place last year, but McKienzie-Fuerbringer has been impressed with how quickly she’s picked up the offense.
At libero, the team has a battle between sophomore Nicole Hoff and freshman Jenna Giambi, the niece of former Dirtbag and MLB great Jason Giambi.
“They’re phenomenal and that’s been a day to day battle and fight between the two of them,” said McKienzie-Fuerbringer.
The team is excited for sophomore Katie Kennedy, who will serve as a hitter on both sides of the net, as well as newcomer Starr Williams, a long-heralded 6-foot-3 recruit who is likely to make an immediate impact offensively as a true freshman.
Williams committed as a high school freshman what feels like a lifetime ago, and was ecstatic to play in the Black and Gold match and finally put on a Long Beach State uniform.
“It’s great actually getting to be here, it feels like I’ve been here a long, long time,” she said. “I’ve been watching from the stands, meeting all the other recruits. This team is great, we’re young but we’ve got a lot of really versatile players.”
Kennedy acknowledged it’s a weird situation being one of the team’s most experienced players while technically just a sophomore, but said she’s excited for the season.
“It’s been really hard just practicing for two years, it’s going to be so great to actually play,” she said. “There’s a great energy. There are a lot of young players but they’re also big personalities who are willing to step up and lead–we only have two seniors so we can’t put that entire responsibility on them. We all fit really well together.”
All of that being said, there’s no doubt that the COVID-19 20-month pause for the program came at a particularly difficult time, and ended up robbing the Beach of some momentum. The team finished in fifth place in the Big West in 2019 and haven’t made an NCAA Tournament since 2014. They looked poised to take a big step forward with two solid recruiting classes in a row, but lost prized recruit Mia Tuaniga during the shutdown.
Tuaniga, a setter and the younger sister of two-time LBSU national champion and National Player of the Year Josh Tuaniga, was the 2019 Gatorade State Player of the Year in California. The highest-ranked commit of the five-year McKienzie-Fuerbringer era enrolled at Long Beach State, but ended up transferring to USC without playing a match, in part because the Pac-12 had a season last Fall while the Big West (and Long Beach State by extension) did not.
“The shutdown definitely hurt us with the momentum, it did,” said McKienzie-Fuerbringer. “But it is what it is–we’ve just gotta do what we can, and we’ve got great setters in Kasia and Tia so we’re going to move forward and enjoy getting a chance to compete and get better this season.”