The562’s coverage of Long Beach State Volleyball is sponsored by Naples Island Car Wash. Visit NaplesIslandCarWash.comto learn more.
Expectations for the Long Beach State women’s volleyball team haven’t been this high in a decade, as the team begins the Tyler Hildebrand era with an influx of transfer talent as well as a few stalwart returners. The Beach’s new coach has (realistic) expectations of winning the Big West conference and making some progress in the NCAA Tournament, something the team has done just once in the last 15 years..
“There’s a real energy in the gym, everyone is really excited to get better and there’s a lot of hope,” said returning All-Big West middle blocker Katie Kennedy.
Given that the team went 10-10 in the Big West and finished in sixth place in the conference last year, what gives Hildebrand and his team such hope for a massive turnaround? Well, for starters Hildebrand has managed to hit the “reverse” button on the transfer portal’s vacuum of talent out of the program.
Most mid-majors are used to power-five teams raiding their best players via transfer–two-time All-Big West honoree Kashauna Williams transferred from LBSU to Penn State after last season, for example. But entering Hildebrand’s debut year, it’s the Beach that’s proven to be the desirable location over the football schools. The team has seven transfers this year, and they came from Nebraska, Florida State, Minnesota, Kansas State, Purdue, BYU, and San Diego State; two of them were All-Big 12 freshman team honorees and another, outside hitter, Morgan Chacon, was an All-ACC and All-East Region honoree last season.
“We’ve got nine new total players, we run a completely different system in almost every way, we’re trying to become a great team,” said Hildebrand. “A lot of that is off the court trying to galvanize all this newness and to become great.”
There are already reasons to be optimistic. The team’s lone exhibition this year was against Pepperdine, who enter the season ranked No. 31 in the nation after a 22-6 record last year, with almost all of their starters returning. The new-look Beach battled the Waves to a 2-2 draw that saw Long Beach outhit Pepperdine .216 to .133; the Beach also won two of the three sets with setter Zayna Meyer running the offense.
Meyer, a redshirt freshman transfer from BYU, was the No. 40 recruit in the nation in 2021 and No. 12 setter in the country in that class.
Kennedy was a standout offensively and defensively, and she said that the team’s been coming together well.
“We’re putting the puzzle pieces together, everybody knows we have a lot of new players and a whole new staff,” she said. “All the players were here in the Summer working out voluntarily. We’re lucky all the new girls we’ve got have great character–their personalities, we really lucked. There’s a lot of competition for playing time and it’s really pushing everyone.”
That question of playing time is arguably the biggest challenge facing Hildebrand. He played 17 players in the Pepperdine scrimmage and 16 in the Black & Gold scrimmage where the team faced itself. As an indicator of how even the talent is in the program, the “A vs B” scrimmage resulted in scores of 24-26 and 26-25 for the Beach–depth has been a massive challenge for the program for the last several years, but is likely to be one of its biggest strengths going into 2022.
Chacon was a standout at Florida State for four years and has been one of the bright spots so far for the Beach, posting nine kills against Pepperdine. She said the pitch that got her to the Beach was an effective one.
“I wanted to be in a gym where there’s just a true living fire and passion for the sport of volleyball, with teammates and coaches who truly love the sport,” she said. “Our coaches are the best in the country and I wanted to be coached by the best. I feel lucky and grateful to be in the same gym as them and I love that this is a school where volleyball is important, where everyone is invested in these programs. It feels like it could be something really special.”
Chacon’s reference to the quality of coaches was echoed by others. Hildebrand is in his first year as a head coach and assistants Cursty Le Roux and Kim Hill have a combined one year of NCAA coaching experience. Their pitch has been that the team isn’t going to play like an NCAA team, it’s going to play a system that looks more like the national team (Hill is a two-time Olympian and gold medalist) and like pro teams overseas play (Le Roux played top level club ball for almost a decade). Hildebrand was very successful as an Associate Head Coach at Nebraska recently, but also coached the USA Beach teams for several years including at the 2016 Olympics, and was a men’s assistant coach who helped build the two-time NCAA champion LBSU men’s teams.
“We are going to run a lot of international volleyball and national team stuff,” said Hildebrand. “We’re running a BIC (quick back row attack), we’re blocking outside our body, we’re playing with speed, and being really aggressive…I have two women who played on the national team on staff, and we’re coaching the way that they played, at the highest level.”
The Beach will get a chance to test themselves against the best as they travel to No. 1-ranked Nebraska early. The team opens at the Portland State Tournament this weekend and will have its home opener against Boise State in the Walter Pyramid on Sept. 1, then play Notre Dame in the Pyramid that Saturday. The Big West schedule opens Sept. 23 at Cal Poly and at home Oct. 1 against Hawaii.
Kennedy said she’s excited to see her team on the court.
“We’re going to keep pushing ourselves, we don’t want to look good on paper we want to look good on the court,” said Kennedy.