One of the biggest surprise teams this season has been No. 2 Long Beach State — just don’t tell that to any of the 49er players or coaching staff.
After being projected in the preseason poll to finish the MPSF in ninth place, Long Beach State (6-3, 5-1 MPSF) is in second place in the conference and swept the defending NCAA champions Stanford in its most recent match. That victory also extended the 49ers’ winning streak to four matches.
The early season success has surprised most people, except for 49ers interim head coach Andy Read and his players.
Following a bye week and with Long Beach State preparing for its match against Cal State Northridge on Friday, Off the Block conducted an interview with Read to discuss the team’s recent success.
This is Read’s second of three seasons as the interim head coach. Read was promoted to the position after Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe was named the head coach of the United States men’s volleyball team for the 2012 Olympics.
Off the block: We are about one-third of the way through the season. How would you assess your team’s performance so far?
Andy Read: I think since the start of the season we have played some really good matches against some good opponents, We played Stanford, which was good to beat the national champions, and BYU, and we played against USC on the road. That doesn’t take away from anything for them. They played really well, and we played really bad that match. Our team is getting better every time they are in gym. We have more than six guys contributing right now. We have 14, 16 guys that can do something to help win a match. That is a good feeling to have as a coach.
OTB: Entering the season Long Beach State was projected to finish in the bottom half of the MPSF. Are you surprised with how well your team has played?
AR: I think a lot people on the outside saw that we lost talented players like [Dean] Bittner and [Dan] Alexander who were All-Americans caliber. Whenever you lose those type of players there are people who expect you to fall off a little. As coaching staff we said we have to better together than individually. Our guys didn’t have the ability to play together last year, and we have to develop a greater team dynamic this year. You saw it with the Green Bay Packers. They had to develop that team dynamic because of injuries. Luckily we haven’t had any injuries, but we had to develop that dynamic because we lost some guys that were an essence parts of the team. Am I surprised, no. This is what I expected. On the outside, yeah I think people were surprised.
OTB: Your team is on a four-match winning streak after starting the season 2-3, what’s been the difference in the last four matches?
AR: Well for one, we played all four of those matches at home, and it is always good to play at home. You have to realize that the season starts so fast. You get back from Christmas break and you have a week to practice before you start playing. We were in the Santa Barbara Invitational and we really could have been 2-1. We lost a close match to UCLA. Then we played a good five-game match in Pepperdine and not a good at match at USC. We got home and I thought we were playing well, and they did what I thought they could do. … We just starting to play better and better. We had a few players get injured and guys got sick, but we had guys who stepped in and play great. I know we had ability to do that. It’s not any great improvements that we made. It’s just our team maturing and playing together.
OTB: You’ve had a 12-day layoff going into your next match. What have you and your team focused on during this layoff?
AR: At the end of last week we didn’t say, ‘we’re better than Stanford, let’s stop.’ There hasn’t been time off from the gym for our guys. You don’t have windows like this during a season to get better. We’ve been able to add new things to offense and work on our blocking and get in more passing reps. We’ve had some players sick and injured and it’s given them time to heal. It’s not like we’ve been sitting back on beach chairs sipping margaritas. Our guys have been in the gym working hard on things. As coaches we’ve been holding feet to fire and want them to get better. … It’s like that famous Vince Lombardi quote, ‘we are going to pursue perfection and along the way we’ll reach greatness.’ And that’s what we are after.
OTB: After a bye some teams struggle in their first few matches finding an offensive rhythm. It sounds like you are not concerned about that entering your match against Cal State Northridge.
AR: I don’t expect it. Could it happen the first half of set, yeah. But our guys have been playing volleyball and working hard in our gym. We have a lot older guys on this team, juniors and seniors, and they have been through it before. We going to go to Northridge, go through warm ups and go after it. As a coach you might have to be a little more patient with the team starting out match, but if someone is not playing well, we’ll make some changes. We don’t expect that, though, with our guys. They have a good sense of how to play and how we want to play the game.
OTB: When you look at last year, your team started off playing well and then stumbled down the stretch finishing on a seven-match losing streak and missing out on the playoffs. Was there anything you took from that experience for this year?
AR: To say we stumbled might be an understatement. We fell flat on our face. I think one time we mentioned to our team, maybe in November, about last year. When the season ended last year we at times we were playing well, and we couldn’t find ways to win close matches at the end. There were deeper issue than that, though, with the team not playing together. We couldn’t beat good teams. We needed for them to lose the match. All that led to some individual meetings with players and over the summer we assigned them papers or books to read about leadership and trust, and our guys came back really focused. Some of that focus was not wanting to repeat last year and wanting it to be like this. We are not running away from something. We are moving towards something.
OTB: Outside attacker Jim Baughman is averaging almost four kills per game this season. What has he meant to your team on offense?
AR: He’s finally really healthy. We moved him to the opposite because he was wearing his knees out at outside the last two years. Playing opposite there are three things you need to do, and he does them all well. He can kill in the back and front row. He scores on his serve. Right now he has as good of a serve as anyone in the conference. He hits it hard and where it needs to be again and again and again, and that puts pressure on the other team. And he is a really good blocker wherever we place him. He is doing well for us. He is also a great guy to have in terms of leadership.
OTB: The 49ers are now ranked in the top three of the coaches poll and media poll. Have the players mindset in the locker room changed with people now view Long Beach as the favorite to win some of these matches.
AR: The mindset of locker room is set, and it is not because of a contest or beauty posters. Our guys feel confident in what we are doing in our gym and working hard. What everyone says on the outside is nice recognition and it feels good for the players to hear it, but the end result is we have to settle it on the floor. It doesn’t mean anything if we are No. 2. Our opponent want to beat us. … We have to go out and earn every win and be confident on our side of the net.
OTB: You play Cal State Northridge on Friday. The Matadors have struggled at 2-8 to open the season. What are you expecting from the match?
AR: I’m expecting them to play really good. They beat Pepperdine in five, and just had tough weekend back east, which is a tough place to play. They are missing some guys helped them get to the Final Four last year. However, they got good athletes and good coach. In the last five years they beat us more than we’ve beat them, so they should feel confident. They are going to be playing in there place, and that helps. We expect a win but it’s because we play better than them and nothing else.