Brendan Yu | Off the Block special contributor
In the midst of Thursday night’s longest rally between Long Beach and Ohio State, both sides continuously turned towards their go-to hitters.
For the Buckeyes, that was All-American outside attacker Nicolas Szerszen, who had led Ohio State to a national title the past two years. For the 49ers that was their own All-American outside attacker TJ DeFalco, a junior who had shouldered the program’s hopes for a national championship the past three years.
Over the course of the 30-second rally, both players sent the ball sailing across the net only to see it come back as quickly as it left in the Pauley Pavilion. Soon enough however, DeFalco decisively put an end to the rally after finessing a shot into the open backcourt, with a Buckeye defender nowhere in sight.
That point, was in essence, a microcosm of Long Beach State’s season: Night after night, teams gave the 49ers their best shot. And night after night, the 49ers proved that each team’s best simply wasn’t good enough.
Ohio State (25-6) was no exception. The top-seeded 49ers (27-1) ousted the two-time defending champions 25-22, 25-23, 25-27, 32-30 in the VolleyFour to advance to their first championship match since 2004.
The Buckeyes did not relinquish their crown easily, and challenged the 49ers in a manner that few teams had this season in a match that saw 46 tie scores and 14 lead changes. Ohio State held their own against the nation’s top-ranked offense (hitting .326 to .339) with three players finishing with more than 15 kills on top of a match-high 10 aces.
“We got to see tonight first-hand why they’ve won the last two championships,” Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe said. “Hats off to them, that was some big time serving; I’m so proud of our passers tonight, they hung in there and came through but Ohio State did a great job applying pressure.”
The match closed out the chapter on Szerszen’s collegiate career, who logged 16 kills on a .452 hitting percentage.
“It was a great ride. [I’ve] never regretted anything. Today was one of the biggest fights of the year, if not the biggest. I think we put it all out there,” Szerszen said. “It was awesome. It was awesome and I enjoyed every single bit of it. I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”
His fellow French countryman Maxime Hervoir recorded 17 kills on a .412 hitting percentage while Off the Block/Springbak, Inc. Freshman All-American opposite Jake Hanes rebounded from logging only one kill in the first set to finishing with a match-high 21 kills.
The 49ers out-blocked the Buckeyes 10 to 7, and while they were outgunned from the service line, limited their service errors to 17 while Ohio State faulted 26 times.
Long Beach State was led by All-Americans opposite Kyle Ensing who had 20 kills on a .356 hitting percentage and DeFalco who logged 16 kills while swinging for .361.
“At the end of the day, somebody is going to come out on top, and somebody is going to not come out on top,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “It wasn’t for a lack of effort on our part. I think it was the fact that the number one team in the country made a few plays at the right time, kind of like we did on Tuesday night against UC Irvine.”
The Buckeyes started out hitting a lackluster .190 in the first game, but improved with each successive set before ending with a team-high .419 in the fourth game.
“I think our passing steadied out. I don’t know how Long Beach State felt, if they’d served it really well. But, I thought we handled their serves better as the match went on,” Hanson said. “I thought that our centers did a much better job as the match went on. They understood what they were doing with their blocking. And then, Nic and Max and Jake just kept firing away at it. Those are three pretty good offensive guys, and they found a way to keep scoring.”
Throughout the season, Long Beach State left little doubt that the title was there’s for the taking, daring anyone to think otherwise as they repeatedly steamrolled opponents en route to a 26-1 record. And for the majority of the night, Ohio State seemed to be yet another obstacle fated to be shoved aside by Long Beach State on their path to greatness.
As both teams continued exchanging points late into the fourth-game however, the Buckeyes started to cast doubt on the 49er’s manifest destiny as they continued fending off match-point after match-point while clocking in their highest hitting percentage of the match at .419. The Beach would not be denied however, and like every team before them, the Buckeyes were forced to succumb when National Player of the Year Joshua Tuaniga set dump the ball in the set’s seventh match-point.
“The boys played some nice defense on that play, but they got jumbled up so I didn’t have any big hitters to set to so I decided to just take a chance,” Tuaniga said. “It was kind of a back-and-forth thing in my head, and as it was falling I thought ‘please get down, please get down.”
For the 49ers, the win not only serves as a catharsis from their exits in the VolleyFour the past two seasons, but validation that the team, particularly the all-star trio of DeFalco, Ensing, and Tuaniga, has matured. What remains to be seen is if that maturity can carry Long Beach State to a national title when it faces UCLA on Saturday night.
“These guys have taken us to the national championships as freshmen and sophomores, now they’re a different group and they’ve done a wonderful job,” Knipe said. “I’ve been through these situations before as a player and a coach and I hope some of that rubs off on our guys and obviously we can talk through it and understand what it feels like and all that emotion pumping through your body. How are you gonna handle it? Is it going to be frustration or determination? There’s a real thin line between those in sport.
“Determination has you focusing on the next point while frustration has you with your head down. At the end of the day today, we were executing with determination. And that comes from resiliency and frankly lessons learned from failure.”