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The Long Beach State men’s volleyball team had lunch in the Walter Pyramid Tuesday afternoon after a light practice, then boarded onto charter buses bound for Los Angeles. The Beach hopes that the next time they return to the city, they’ll have some more hardware with them. They’re the No. 1 seed for this week’s NCAA Final Four at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
After the Bruins defeated Pepperdine Tuesday night it sets up a huge Final Four match for Thursday at 5 p.m., with top-seeded Long Beach State facing off against the host Bruins.
“The guys are excited, I think we’re playing well at the right time of the season,” said LBSU coach Alan Knipe.
The Beach are already in rarified air just in making the trip. It’s the first time in program history they’re going to a fifth Final Four in six years, with almost half of the program’s dozen appearances coming in this recent golden era.
Long Beach is looking to win a third NCAA title in four years–they won it in 2018 and 2019 (in Pauley Pavilion and in the Pyramid) before seeing 2020 shut down due to COVID-19. Hawaii won last year’s NCAA title, and the Rainbow Warriors are in it again this year as well–they’ll face No. 2 Ball State Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
The winners of the two Final Four matches Thursday will meet Saturday at 5 p.m. for the championship.
Will Long Beach be one of those teams? It’s pretty wide open. The Beach split a pair of matches with UCLA earlier this season, and they’re 2-1 against Hawaii. It’s the most open NCAA Tourney in several years, with all three of those programs widely considered to have a good shot at the title. Ball State beat Hawaii early in the season, too, bolstering their confidence.
This year’s Beach team has shown it has the talent, with five of the team’s seven starters named All-Americans earlier this week, including National Freshman of the Year Alex Nikolov, who is also expected to be a finalist for National Player of the Year. Whether the Beach has the mental edge remains to be seen. It’s a young roster, with those five All-Americans all coming back for two more seasons.
It’s easy to think of the TJ DeFalco/Josh Tuaniga/Kyle Ensing teams that lost their sophomore year in the Final Four before winning the next two titles. Knipe is hoping his team won’t need the experience of losing in the Final Four to propel them in the next two seasons, but acknowledged it’s an unknown.
“We’ll find out this week,” he said.
The Beach were 15-1 at home but just 4-3 away from the Pyramid this year. Nikolov said he embraces the prospect of playing UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.
“I don’t mind hate I would rather it be a big crowd than a small crowd, even if they want us to lose,” he said.
The match Thursday will be shown live at NCAA.com.