Long Beach State Volleyball

Long Beach State Volleyball Enters 2023 With Championship Possibilities

The562’s coverage of Long Beach State Volleyball is sponsored by Naples Island Car Wash. Visit NaplesIslandCarWash.comto learn more.

The Long Beach State men’s volleyball team is preparing to open its 2023 season this Friday and Saturday in the Walter Pyramid, where they’ll host King College and Lindenwood to kick off what they’re hoping will be a memorable year.

There’s plenty of reasons for optimism. The Beach were ranked No. 3 in the preseason NCAA rankings and return four All-Americans in libero Mason Briggs, outside hitters Clarke Godbold and Spencer Olivier, and setter Aidan Knipe. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID and the 2021 season was dramatically shortened, but taking the last three full NCAA seasons of 2018, 2019, and 2022, things have gone pretty dang well for the Beach. They won the national title in 18 and 19, and were runner-ups last season with a loss to preseason favorite Hawaii in the NCAA Final.

“We’re excited about it,” said LBSU coach Alan Knipe. “It’s nice to actually have a normal Fall and start to the season. Last year we had some limitations in the Fall and then we got shut down in January and had to cancel our first trip. It’s been nice to get back to some normalcy and building a system-based program again.”

That “system” approach will be necessary if the Beach want to make another Final Four trip this year, because the returning roster does also feature a National Player of the Year-sized hole to fill. Star freshman Alex Nikolov, the first-ever frosh NPOY honoree last season, departed the Beach for the professional ranks, where he’s world-elite level despite still being a teenager.

“No one chooses to lose a player of that caliber, especially when he did what he did as a freshman,” said Knipe. “Having a player of that size and physicality is like having Shaq. He’s going to force you to make some decisions in  your offense because of his talent. In a lot of ways that’s good obviously. This is going to be a little different this year, because we’re looking to do it more with talent and depth and system, stressing teams with our offensive patterns and ball control and serving.”

Support The562.org

The great news for the Beach is that Nikolov didn’t leave the house with an empty pantry. Most of the players on last year’s national runner-up squad were freshmen and sophomores. They return Olivier and Godbold as pin-hitters, as well as Shane Holdoway and Grant Marocchi in the middle, as well as 6-foot-10 potential star Simon Torwie, who moved to the middle midseason last year. Mason Briggs, a future Olympic libero, returns to anchor the back row, and Aidan Knipe (Alan’s son) returns as setter.

The team also returns depth pieces from last year like Calvin Sanborn and Nathan Harlan, who were on the court as either rotational players or service subs last year.

But the Beach have added several top players this year, too. Sebastian Rodriguez, a former top recruit at outside hitter, is healthy and ready to play this year, and the Beach got a big transfer in Ohio State Sotiris Siapanis, an All-American for the Buckeyes last year.

“I think people will think of (Beach National Players of the Year) TJ DeFalco or Taylor Crabb when they see him, he’s a great server, great passer, great defender,” said Knipe.

Canadian player Skyler Varga can play on either pin, and Derek Owens is a 6-7 middle with a 44-inch vertical jump. The Beach also added depth at other positions including setter. 

Knipe has achieved what is nearly impossible for a college coach--he’s had a young roster that’s talented enough to compete for a national championship, and somehow maintained having a top-shelf recruiting class each of the last two years, too.

“We’ve found when guys come on a visit and get in the gym with us and spend time with us and the guys, most of the time they’re looking for ways to be part of it,” said Knipe. “It’s a balance because we don’t want to get too big, either. At the same time there are guys who are really drawn to the style we’re playing and the culture of the program.”

Key dates for the Beach this year include hosting No. 2 UCLA on Feb. 10, a road trip to Hawaii March 17-18, hosting USC March 24, and a regular season home finale against UC Irvine on April 14. The Big West Tournament will be in Irvine this year and the NCAA Tournament at George Mason in Virginia. The Beach hope to be big factors in both, obviously. But either way, Knipe said he’s enjoying being at the helm of his alma mater program during what is undoubtedly one of the most successful golden eras in school history in any sport.

“I’m just grateful,” he said. “For the players, the many great coaches I’ve had alongside me, to the community, to the university for really pushing our sport. We’re not going to get too far ahead, we’re going to compete and show our LB Grit and keep working. That’s the fun part to me. That’s the enjoyable part.”

Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.