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College sports fans were treated to a nationally televised installment of an epic, historic rivalry Saturday night with an electric crowd on hand. UNC and Duke? Sure. This was the volleyball equivalent: No. 2 Long Beach State hosting No. 4 Hawaii in the Walter Pyramid for the second night of a Big West back-to-back. Just like Friday, the Beach prevailed in four sets, making a good case for Long Beach to be the new No. 1 team in the nation with a 25-23, 25-20, 21-25, 25-19 victory.
The Long Beach State players and coaches spent the week saying it was just another weekend series, but that obviously wasn’t the case with ESPN cameras joined by more than 3,000 volleyball fans in the Walter Pyramid, an electric atmosphere that was as memorable as the top-notch play on the court.
“It’s the most fun I’ve had being here,” said LBSU setter Aidan Knipe. “The crowd was crazy, we could feel the energy on the court. They’re a great team too, we just played really well this weekend. We passed the ball well and it freed me up to run an offense I was comfortable with. It puts us on a good trajectory for the rest of the season.”
Knipe set the Beach to a .350 attack percentage, with Alex Nikolov (18 kills) Spencer Olivier (12) and Clarke Godbold (12) all hitting good numbers. The win puts Long Beach (16-3, 5-1) alone at the top of the Big West, one game up on UC Santa Barbara. With the sweep against Hawaii and splits against UCLA and UCSB (where the Beach won five sets to their opponents’ three), Long Beach’s trajectory does look good, as they’re in the drivers’ seat for a conference title and an NCAA berth.
The matches also featured some truly incredible luck and timing from the family of sophomore Simon Torwie, a native of Germany. Torwie is 6-10, and a freak athlete that Long Beach has been trying to get on the floor all season. He didn’t stick at opposite hitter, the spot he’s played in his entire life, and has seen limited time at middle blocker. Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe put Torwie in at middle on Friday night in the second set, and he started in that spot on Saturday, turning in a star performance with three kills, two aces, three digs, and eight blocks.
As it turned out, Torwie’s performance was in front of his family, who made the trip from Europe to see their son’s collegiate team for the first time since he’s been in Long Beach.
“I’m really glad that they managed to do it,” he said.
Torwie said he wasn’t dealing with any nerves before his start--he said he had some food, took a long nap, and worked on a paper for a management class before showing up to the Pyramid.
“Getting closer to the game, there’s a certain energy with the team, and I just rode that wave,” he said. Torwie had six blocks in the first 31 points that the Beach scored.
“He didn’t play like he did this weekend randomly,” said LBSU coach Alan Knipe. “He’s been grinding. When he was in and out and in and out a little bit he could have been defeated by that. But he’s been committed to getting better regardless, he’s been grinding.”
In addition to notching 15 team blocks, Long Beach also dug 47 balls, with libero Mason Briggs flying around for 16.
The first set saw Long Beach trail 22-20, and 23-22, but freshman Alex Nikolov’s rocket serve saved the day. He got Hawaii out of system twice on points that ended in Long Beach blocks, then put down an ace at 70 miles per hour to win the frame. In the second set, the Beach held a one-point lead when Torwie ripped back-to-back aces to make it 19-16 Beach, and they then cruised to a 25-20 win.
In the third set, Hawaii had a 7-1 run in the middle of the frame to take a lead, and closed it out with setter Jakob Thelle serving well to keep his team alive. Hawaii jumped out to a 5-0 lead in set four with Thelle serving, but the Beach dug deep and weathered the storm. After falling behind 5-0, Long Beach won 20 of the next 30 points to take a 20-15 lead and ended up easily taking the set.
“I’m really excited for our growth and development,” said Knipe. “I was really proud of how our guys showed their composure late in sets. I’m really proud of our guys’ grit, I don’t think it showed anywhere more than in that fourth set when we got down 5-0 and then tied it up at 10-10, I thought that was the difference in the set.”
Nikolov’s 18 kills were bolstered by his 12 digs, five blocks and two aces; Godbold had five blocks and an ace; and Olivier had seven digs, three blocks and an ace.
All the interviewed players and coaches discussed how meaningful it was to have such a big crowd back in the Pyramid.
“That was a great environment tonight, we had a ton of people here and both teams draw well, even on the road,” said Knipe. “We had a whole bunch of former players…it was great for the vibe of the gym, having people back in the Pyramid enjoying themselves. It just really felt like we were back in a normal space again, and that was a lot of hard work from everyone involved in our athletic department.”
Long Beach State will host UCSD Friday at 7 p.m. back in the Pyramid this week.