Brendan Yu | Off the Block special contributor
Throughout the course of the NCAA Tournament semifinals match between Long Beach State and Pepperdine, senior outside hitter TJ DeFalco proved that even among the most elite of men’s collegiate volleyball, he belongs in a class of his own.
Time and time again the 49ers turned to DeFalco, and time and time again he delivered. DeFalco, the AVCA National Player of the Year, went on to record a match-high 17 kills on a .500 attack percentage while adding two aces, five digs, and five block to lead the 49ers past the Waves 25-21, 21-25, 25-16, 25-15 and into the NCAA Tournament finals.
Within the confines of its home court, Long Beach State simply outclassed Pepperdine as they out-hit the Waves .461 to .168 and out-blocked them 14.0 to 2.0.
Nick Amado asserted his presence in the middle as he pounded away nine kills on .818 hitting while adding four blocks (two solo). Kyle Ensing, the Big West Player of the Year, was limited to six kills on .143 hitting but contributed a match-high six aces and nine digs.
David Wieczorek, the MPSF Player of the Year, managed eight kills while hitting .080. Michael Wexter paced the Waves with 12 kills and eight digs, while Kaleb Denmark added eight kills and four digs.
In the opening set that was much more lopsided than the score would indicate, the 49ers recorded a .357 hitting percentage while holding the Waves to .048 hitting. Of the 21 points that Pepperdine scored, eight of them were gifted off of Long Beach State service errors. Pepperdine erased an early 3-0 deficit and retook the lead on a 4-0 run that included a block and kill by Wieczorek. However, Long Beach State did not trail for long as they retook the lead at 18-16 off back-to-back blocks and force a Waves timeout. The break did little to cool off Long Beach State, as Ensing unloaded consecutive aces to force yet another Pepperdine timeout. Pepperdine could not close the deficit and a pair of back-to-back kills by DeFalco clinched the opening set for the 49ers.
Pepperdine rebounded from its poor offensive showing by hitting .407 in the second and converting seven of its first nine attempts to edge out a 10-8 lead. Kevin Vaz in particular, was an effective catalyst for the Waves as he was errorless six kills on as many swings. With the 49ers trailing 16-12 and in danger of falling behind, DeFalco would unload four kills and a block for good measure to put Long Beach State back up 18-17. In the critical closing moments of the set, Wexter responded in kind with back-to-back aces and a kill to give the Waves triple match-point at 24-21. An ace by Denmark would cap off a 6-1 run by the Waves to even the match.
Ensing, who had yet to score a kill on 10 swings, finally recorded his first two kills of the match at the onset of the third set as the 49ers jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Long Beach State would keep Pepperdine at a four-point deficit before Wexter and Denmark combined for three kills to even the game at 13-all. That was the high-point of the set for the Waves as Long Beach only allowed three more points as they closed out the set on a 12-3 run.
Kills by Simone Anderson and Defalco would break a stalemate in the fourth to give Long Beach State a 10-8 lead. Ensing would widen that lead with three straight aces to take a 15-10 lead, and that deficit would only expand as the 49ers closed out the Waves to punch their second consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament finals.
Long Beach State will face Hawai’i on Saturday for what will be their fourth-meeting of the season. The 49ers swept the regular season series against Rainbows Warriors, but fell to Hawai’i in the finals of the Big West Tournament.