Brendan Yu | Off the Block senior correspondent
In a finals match-up where only the thinnest of margins separated the No. 1 seed Hawai’i and the No. 2 seed Long Beach State, the slightest advantage may have made all the difference.
For the 49ers, it may have been the experience of having won it the year before. Perhaps it was the comfort of playing for the championship on the home floor.
Or maybe, just maybe, it was simply because Long Beach State had the best player in men’s volleyball.
As he had done through his last four years, TJ DeFalco once again put Long Beach State on his back, logging a match-high 20 kills to lead the team past Hawai’i 23-25, 25-22, 25-22, 25-23 and to its second straight NCAA championship.
For DeFalco, a two-time National Player of the Year who could’ve turned pro anytime he wanted to, winning the championship in back-to-back years serves to validate his decision to play out his collegiate career at Long Beach State.
“I couldn’t tell you how much I’ve grown staying in college, learning from the coaching staff, learning from my teammates, staying with them, bonding with them; doing this thing the right way,” DeFalco said. “Riding it out and getting the most exposure with them, everything has just been amazing and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
In addition to his 20 kills (.516 hitting), DeFalco added three service aces, five digs, and three blocks.
The 49ers out-classed the Rainbow Warriors in nearly every facet of the game — out-hitting them .427 to .324 and out-blocking them 12 to 4.
Kyle Ensing added 13 kills while Simon Andersen and Nick Amado added five kills on an errorless nine swings each.
Rado Parapunov led Hawai’i with 16 kills, while Stijn van Tilburg and Colton Cowell chipped in 11 and 10 kills respectively.
Unlike their previous three meetings, the 49ers were able to close out the Rainbow Warriors in four sets.
“I think there was a few sets that we were able to have some composure late,” Long Beach State setter Joshua Tuaniga said. “Once it got into the 20s there were times that we’re maybe up 22-20 and then they’d score a couple and then we’re tied up. Once they hit those 20s, then it’s like “We really got to buckle down and execute some good volleyball.” Having some composure late in these close sets was a huge deal for us.”
After starting out hitting .273, the 49ers only got better with each progressive set, ending the final set with a team-high .577. The Bows on the other hand, peaked in the second set hitting .350 before flaming out at .280 in the fourth.
Parapunov propelled the Bows to a quick 7-2 lead by converting all three of his kill attempts early on. That spark was evidently all Hawai’i needed to ignite their high-octane offense, as the Bows converted on nearly every swing to take a 21-13 lead. With the first set all but over, the Beach responded with a 9-2 run, that included a triple block on Parapunov to pull within one at 23-22. That was as close as the Beach would get however, as the Bows managed to side out and escape with the set off an overpass kill by Dalton Solbrig.
In the second set Long Beach would take a 10-7 advantage off of back-to-back kills by DeFalco and Ensing. Tuaniga would give the Beach expand the lead to 14-9 off a pair of aces and forced a Hawai’i timeout. The Bows would rally and close to within one 22-21 on a 5-2 run capped off by a double-block from Worsley and Solbrig. However, the Beach held firm, taking set point courtesy of two Hawai’i service errors and clinched the set off an Amado and Tuaniga block.
Much like Parapunov in the first set, van Tilburg converted four quick kills to give the Bows a 5-0 lead in the third set. The 49ers regrouped out of a timeout and responded with a 5-2 run to tie the game at 7-7. From then, both teams took turns siding out before DeFalco unloaded a kill and two aces to put the 49ers back on top at 17-15. Hawai’i whiffed on two opportunities to tie the game with service errors, but the Beach returned the favor with a setter and net violation to tie the game. At 21-21, the Beach would kick into a second gear and close out the set on a 4-1 run.
With Long Beach State hitting a match-high .577 and Hawai’i logging a match-low .280, it became clear that the championship was the 49ers for the taking. Despite the disparity, the Beach could not capitalize on their offensive efficiency as they committed eight service errors to allow the Bows to stay within one. However, that only delayed the inevitable, as DeFalco would fittingly score the last two points to cement the Beach’s status as one of the most dominant teams of the decade.