Brendan Yu | Off the Block special contributor
In the wake of its unceremonious VolleyFour exits the past two years, the maturity of the Long Beach State had been called into question.
But as they amassed a near flawless 24-1 record during the regular season, the 49ers left little doubt that this year was a much more experienced and – more importantly – disciplined team.
On Saturday night, the 49ers decisively settled any lingering questions about their resiliency as they survived their biggest test of the season, a 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-12 dogfight against a home UCLA team to capture the 2018 NCAA championship.
“I’m very proud of our guys, of not putting their head down after some failure. It’s just with any other life lesson. You get some failure and what are you going to do with it? Our guys decided to have some determination and do something about it,” coach Alan Knipe said. “They trained like that every single day from the fall all the way through, winning the first-ever Big West Conference regular-season championship [and] the Big West Conference Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament and winning the national championship. That’s growth and I’m super proud.”
All-American outside attacker TJ DeFalco had 18 kills on a .419 clip while adding two aces, four blocks and 12 digs in the win. All-American opposite Kyle Ensing had a .326 hitting percentage on 46 swings and totaled a team-best 20 kills and added four service aces, five digs and four blocks. Setter and AVCA National Player of the Year Joshua Tuaniga, who was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, quarterbacked the 49ers to a .325 hitting percentage.
UCLA middle attacker Daenan Gyimah had a match-high and career-best 21 kills on a .375 hitting percentage and added four blocks. Christian Hessenauer, Dylan Missry and Jake Arnitz had 12, 11 and 10 kills, with Missry tallying a team-high six aces.
While the Bruins out-hit the 49ers .328 to .325, they were held to a .062 hitting percentage in the critical fifth set.
“It means the world to us,” Ensing said on winning the championship. “Looking back on our last two years, losing in the semifinals, that’s always in the back of our minds and going into the match we always had that in the back of our mind. We really pushed ourselves a lot this match and we came out on top and it means the world.”
Up two games to one, UCLA had multiple chances to clinch the championship in the fourth, but failed to capitalize despite leading by as much as five at the 11-6 mark. Up 17-13 late, the Bruins could not hang on as the 49ers erupted for a 6-1 run that included three kills by DeFalco to take their first lead of the set at 19-18. At 20-all, the Bruins committed four straight service errors to give Long Beach set point at 24-23.
“We had all of our best servers go back and error, and I think it was a lot about fatigue,” UCLA coach John Speraw said. “ That was a big part; I think when we were serving real tough in sets two, three, and early four, I thought we were in pretty good shape. And then we’ve had some problems in Rotation 1 and it cost us at the end.”
An Arnitz kill brought the game back to deuce, but Tuaniga had a critical setter dump kill against multiple defenders and served an ace on the ensuing point to force a fifth game.
“The main focus for me was just my mechanics. Just making sure I wasn’t being small or trying to be safe. All of that was just focusing on my mechanics, not so much taking in the pressure of the loud crowd. Just [doing] what I usually do when I’m back here and do what has gotten me this far,” said Tuaniga on his game-winning ace. “Honestly, when I served that ball and it landed, I don’t know how close it was, but I thought it was out. I was devastated. And then I see a linesman just do that with a flag… it was all good from there.”
Trailing 7-5 in the fifth, the 49ers evened the score off a Bruin net violation and a double block against Gyimah — who unloaded 16 kills in the last two games — to tie the game. Down the stretch, the 49ers had three consecutive blocks (two doubles and one solo by DeFalco) for a 12 -9 leas. A kill by Ensing set up match-point, and a set from Tuaniga to Nick Amado clinched Long Beach State their first national title since 1991.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, because we had our opportunities,” Speraw said. “Sometimes when you’re up in the fourth set and the [opposing] team comes back, they have a little bit of momentum coming into that fifth. I think we’ll look back on that fourth set with a couple of regrets here and there.
The 49ers came out firing on all cylinders as they finished the first set with a .478 hitting percentage. After holding a two-point lead, Long Beach State broke away to a 11-7 lead off a service ace by DeFalco and never looked back. Of UCLA’s 19 points, nine of them came off unforced errors by Long Beach.
Gyimah proved to be the difference for the Bruins in the second set, as he knocked down eight of the team’s 15 kills to even the match. Both teams took turns siding out with the 49ers leading, but a kill by Gyimah gave back UCLA the lead at 16-15. The Bruins pulled ahead to 22-19, but the 49ers tied up the game on a 3-0 spurt. That was as close as the Beach would come, as UCLA pulled away for good to 24-22 off back-to-back kills by Hess and Arnitz before a Long Beach service error closed the set.
In the third set, both teams went on a number of scoring runs to repeatedly trade the lead back and forth. Trailing 17-16, Missry sparked a 6-0 run that included two service aces to give UCLA a commanding 22-17 lead. The Beach did not register a kill the rest of the set, scoring only off of Bruin errors, and UCLA closed out the game off back-to-back blocks by Gyimah.
Long Beach State has now won its second national title in program history, the first coming back in 1991, of which Knipe was a junior on the 49er team.
With the win, sole blemish on Long Beach State’s record is a five-game loss against Hawai’i, which DeFalco noted served as a useful learning moment for the 49ers going forward.
“We try to learn as much as we can from a win as we do a loss, but then that loss really kind of slapped us around a bit and was like ‘Alright, this is the stuff that’s blaring’ in these types of cultures, like a lot of fans and stuff like that,” DeFalco said. “That definitely exposed a lot of stuff we needed to work on and we’ve definitely improved and so, yes, we don’t care about it, but then yes, we also do.”
Knipe noted that its season series against Hawai’i as well as other high-pressure games, was a useful experience for the 49ers to draw upon against Bruins.
“I think that we used those moments and even Thursday night’s moment,” Knipe said. “We’d talked about that in our pregame. We talked about it at different times throughout the match, that there were reference moments that we had been through this before.
“But I have to give a lot of credit to my administration and to our president for allowing us to grow our sport and to grow our program and allow us to take those trips and to invest in our athletes. It’s an entire family that has allowed this to happen this year.”