The No. 3 ranked Long Beach State men’s volleyball team (4-0) couldn’t have asked for a better start to their season. After a trip to Chicago last weekend saw The Beach take down No. 7 Lewis and then-No. 9 Loyola Chicago, they returned home to the Walter Pyramid for yet another ranked showdown, this time against No. 9 Ohio State (4-2).
Coming into Friday night’s match, the Beach had lost just one set all season, which changed after the Buckeyes came from behind to win the first set 26-24. After this however, The Beach took control of the game, winning the next three sets (25-20, 25-15, 25-22) and never trailing at any point after the first.
“That’s a good team,” said Beach head coach Alan Knipe about Ohio State. “They’re really well coached. They do a lot of really good things to put some pressure on you.”
This pressure was apparent early on, as the Buckeyes jumped out to an early lead in the first set behind .483 hitting. The Beach didn’t go quietly however, and ended up with what appeared to be a safe 24-21 lead towards the end of the frame.
With their backs against the wall though, Ohio State’s Samuel Clark and Jacob Pasteur led an inspired 5-0 run, to steal the set from the Beach. Pasteur had 6 kills in this first set, while Clark had 7 to go along with his set-winning tip.
“We had an opportunity to put the first set away, (but) we didn’t really do that,” said Knipe. “That was kind of on us. We felt like we could’ve closed it, but we came back and played a really good second set, a great third set, and then a really efficient fourth.”
Much of the Beach’s success in following three sets came off the back of freshman standout Alex Nikolov, who’s racked up 71 kills in his first 5 NCAA games since coming over from Bulgaria.
“I think Alex has been doing a great job,” said teammate Spencer Olivier. “Regardless of the fact that he’s a freshman, he’s killing the ball, he’s passing the ball, (and) he’s blocking balls. It makes it easier on the other hitters, because people are so worried about him, that it frees us up a little bit more.”
Nikolov finished with 24 kills, five digs and two aces. Olivier also contributed 16 kills, as the two led the Beach in scoring.
Alongside Nikolov and Olivier, redshirt sophomore Aidan Knipe played a big role in the Beach’s dominance throughout the final three sets. Conducting the offense from the setter position, Kinpe finished with 49 assists and seven digs to lead the team in both categories.
“I think the execution on the passing end from our side, just frees me up to be able to set anywhere, whenever I want to,” said Aidan Knipe.
Coach Knipe also had praise for the passing game, saying “It was a big part of why Aidan had such a good time running the offense. In one set we hit .391, and we were above .400 in all the others. Those are big numbers against a really good team, so huge credit to our passers.”
“Whenever you take a loss, when you feel like you should’ve gotten a win, it definitely fuels you,” said Olivier, when asked about whether or not their tough loss in set one led to their dominance in the other three. “It did give us a little bit (of motivation), but we’re always trying to do our best no matter what situation we’re in.”
Not long into the fourth set, The Beach got themselves out to another sizable advantage, leading 8-3. A solid run from the Buckeyes however, saw Ohio State pull within one. With this, came the pivotal play of the match for the Beach.
Long Beach State’s Clarke Godbold killed what was by far the longest rally of the game, with a vicious spike. The rally itself reached the point where the Ohio State head coach Kevin Burch challenged the ruling, in the hope that the ball had hit the ground sometime before Godbold’s kill.
Unfortunately for Ohio State, it didn’t.
“When you win those long rallies, points tend to come in bunches (afterwards),” said Coach Knipe. “That’s one of those plays where either team deserves the point, but (winning rallies like those) fires up your fans, it fires up your teammates to know how hard you had to work for a point. In this instance, we succeeded.”
Even though they won this matchup, the job’s not finished for Long Beach State. The Beach find themselves back in action tonight, as they play host to No. 4 Penn State at 7 p.m.
“The most important thing for us is to learn a little bit about ourselves from tonight,” said Coach Knipe. “We like to talk about this being halftime when we play back-to-back matches, and great teams make great adjustments in the third and four quarter.”