Brandon Johnson | Off the Block special contributor
LONG BEACH, California — On paper, this was a matchup that could go the distance. Visiting No. 6/6 UC Irvine came into the match riding a five-match winning streak, including three straight five-set matches.
What it found on Wednesday night is No. 2/2 Long Beach State team built to make a championship run.
An early season conversation with his team has created a mindset that coach Alan Knipe said he thinks has propelled the 49ers to where they currently stand.
“Every year is totally different,” Knipe said. “The lessons learned is something you gotta be able to state clearly. We tried to address the areas we thought we weren’t really good at and tried to make sure we were black and white with how we wanted to attack those things all season long.”
Although the Anteaters were able to pull out the third game of the much anticipated MPSF match, the 49ers were in control most of the match. They displayed a well-rounded attack on a night when their offense was not up to their normal standard but still won 25-16, 25-22, 25-27, 25-15.
Coming into the match, the 49ers were attacking at a .381 clip which ranked them first in the country. On this night, they were held to hitting .295 as their swings weren’t finding the floor or the high hands as we have become used to seeing.
“Tonight was really good for us because we need our block, defense, serving, and just overall effort as a team to get us going offensively,” Knipe said.
A steadying force for the 49ers this season has been All-American setter Josh Tuaniga, who currently leads the country averaging 11.62 assists per set. On Wednesday, he had 42 assists and 5 digs.
“My team is making it easy on me. They are getting big, they are getting physical, and they are doing great things,” the sophomore said.
For a team that returned most of their production from last year, the 49ers knew they had to replace a big presence if they were to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. The graduation of All-American middle blocker Taylor Gregory left a hole in the roster as the captain and emotional leader of the team.
Tuaniga realizes that it’s a group effort to replace a player like Gregory.
“The entire team had to step up,” Tuaniga said. “We lost somebody who was a pretty big, essential leader on our team. He taught us so many essential skills and taught us to be leaders on the court. As a team, we are doing a really good job being a (collective) group leader.
Knipe has been pleasantly surprised by the players that have stepped up to provide more leadership.
“There’s no doubt it’s been a collective effort by the entire group. T.J. [Defalco] has done a great job taking over as our captain, and has continued to mature”, Knipe said. “I think Amir [Lugo-Rodriguez] has done a wonderful job with his leadership and obviously he’s doing it with his play as well.”
Lugo-Rodriguez leads the country with a 1.39 blocks per game average.
After a four-set road loss to defending champion Ohio State in February, Long Beach State has now rattled off nine straight wins, while only losing two games along the way.
On the horizon lies a tough two-match series in Provo, Utah as it travel to face the defending MPSF champions No. 3/3 BYU on March 24-25. The results of the series could decide who wins the MPSF regular season title and home court advantage throughout the MPSF Tournament.
Long Beach State with five conference remaining is in first place and has a two-match lead ahead of second-place BYU.
Tuaniga realizes that there is still work to do in order to lock down that coveted home court advantage.
“We are so used to playing in this gym. I think it would be good. But we gotta play our best and hopefully we will get that home court advantage,” Tuaniga said.
Knipe also agreed with Tuaniga about the importance of having home postseason matches.
“There’s so many reasons why it’s important to play at home,” he said. “Everything is comfortable. It’s also a nice validation of a long body of work that’s been productive.”
There’s no doubt that this Long Beach State team has the tools needed to make a deep postseason-run yet again.
UC Irvine coach David Kniffin was extremely impressed by what he saw from the 49ers.
“Long Beach is playing like a No. 1 or No. 2 team in the country right now. They are gonna be tough to crack,” Kniffin said.
On Wednesday night, Long Beach State made an impressive statement that it is one of the favorites to win a national championship this year. If they continue with the well-rounded play, there is no doubt that the path through the MPSF Tournament will go through Long Beach with a shot at redemption at the NCAA Tournament in May.