By the time Long Beach State hoisted the 2019 NCAA men’s volleyball championship trophy in the air on May 4, having beaten Hawaii 3-1 for its second title in a row, LBSU head coach Alan Knipe said it felt like he and his team had just completed an NBA Finals series.
To his point, Long Beach played Hawaii four times in 2019, but due to the coincidence of scheduling, the two teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 throughout almost the entire season didn’t play each other for the first time until April 12. Then they ended up facing each other four times in three weeks.
The back-to-back regular season matches on April 12 and 13 saw Long Beach State hand Hawaii its first two losses of the season, both in five sets, inside the Walter Pyramid. But, even then, Knipe says, his team was already anticipating playing the Warriors again in the Big West championship just a week later.
With Long Beach State eliminating UCSB and Hawaii downing UC Irvine in their respective conference semifinals, Hawaii got another chance, this time winning the Big West title with a five-set victory at home, and in doing so guaranteed itself a spot in the 2019 tournament after being left out of the national postseason in 2018, despite being the only team to beat Long Beach that year.
When the selection committee released the bracket for the 2019 NCAA Tournament, Hawaii earned the No. 1 seed, while Long Beach got the No. 2, placing them on opposite sides of the bracket and setting up a possible fourth meeting in the national championships match.
“I told the guys before we started the very first match with [Hawaii], that I really believed the next month was going to be one of the most enjoyable times of all of our, me included, sporting lives,” Knipe said. “I wanted to make sure we prepped for it and we were fully invested in it, but more importantly that we were enjoying every moment of it, because this is a special time.”
Part of that preparation happened in Long Beach State’s semifinal match versus Pepperdine, in which the 49ers hit .461, the program’s second-highest NCAA Tournament clip ever, and out-blocked the Waves 14 to two, but Knipe said he thought the team could stand to clean up some communication in serve receive.
Forty-eight hours later, against Hawaii in an absolutely packed Walter Pyramid where the gathered crowd included the governor of Hawaii David Ige, Knipe’s passers had one of the their best nights all season, making it possible for the offense to hit .427, even against the veteran Hawaii defense.
When we shot this interview in November, I asked @lbsumvb Nick Amado to write the headline for me as if it was the morning after the 2019 national championship. Well Nick, it’s the morning after the championship, and you were right. pic.twitter.com/E3V2Rc4F84— Olivia Phelps (@OliviaGPhelps) May 5, 2019
“When you hit the number we ended up hitting as a team, obviously you passed the ball well,” Knipe said. “When the games are as close as all four of those sets were, we needed every point we could get, so a huge credit to our passers.”
One of those passers, outside hitter T.J. DeFalco finished the night with a match high 20 kills, hitting .516, more than living up to his billing as a two-time (2017 and 2019) AVCA National Player of the Year.
Setter Josh Tuaniga, the 2018 national player of the year, quarterbacked the offense to that impressive percentage and added three kills of his own. But the unsung heroes, Knipe said, were middles Simon Andersen (one of just two non-seniors in the Long Beach starting lineup) and Nick Amado. Neither player committed a hitting error in the final or the semifinal two days before and both dominated defensively at the net, leading Long Beach to a 12 to four advantage in blocking over Hawaii.
“All the games were close to being deuce games, so a separation of 12 to four or five, whatever they ended up having, those were all real points,” Knipe said. “You can look at whatever category you want to look at, but that’s enough separation right there, just in blocking, to win the match.”
That success and consistency didn’t happen right off in the bat in the championship, however. In fact, Hawaii jumped out to an early lead in set one, even holding a seven-point lead late in the set, 21-14. Rado Parapunov, Hawaii’s star right side hitter from Bulgaria, sparked the fast start, collecting eight kills on his first eight swings of the match.
Hawaii was able to hold onto the lead just long enough to win the opening set, but Long Beach State had already righted the ship and had the momentum heading into the second set.
“I told them, ‘Yeah, we lost a set, but we won the second half of the set,’” Knipe said. “We played really well, we got down fairly big in the first set, but we played really well and came back and made it a 25-23 game.”
From there, it was all Long Beach for most of the final three sets. The Warriors found themselves occasionally too caught up in what they thought were incorrect calls by the referees, and struggles from behind the service line saw Hawaii make 20 errors with just three aces. (Although to be fair, Long Beach also has plenty of missed serves: 23 in total with eight aces.)
Long Beach’s victory marked the final collegiate match for a special group of 49ers—DeFalco, Tuaniga, Amado, opposite Kyle Ensing (the 2019 Big West Player of the Year), libero Jordan Molina, and Louis Richard.
If this really had been an NBA Finals, and not the NCAA where every athlete has a shelf life, Knipe said he’d sign the whole bunch to lifetime contracts.
“To end their four years with a title at the Pyramid is something that makes it so special beyond belief,” Knipe continued. “Sitting around and watching all of their family and extended family and all of their friends and all of our boosters, it just, it’s something that is truly, truly special. I just kind of stepped back on the floor and truly just tried to take in as much as I could of how much enjoyment they were having from this.
“The best part about it is it will only get more and more sweet as the years go by and these guys will be remembered forever in the community of Long Beach, not just Long Beach State, of creating one of the greatest sporting events and season in this city’s history.”
For its part, Hawaii loses Stijn Van Tilburg, a four-year starter and three-time First Team All-American. Shortly after returning to Hawaii following the national championships, the native of hopped on a flight to Europe, even skipping graduation to start training with the Netherlands national team, which is coincidentally hosting the Intercontinental Olympic Qualification Tournament that the U.S. men’s national team is playing in Aug. 9-11.
Graduation also robs the Rainbow Warriors of setter Joe Worsley (who was spotted training with the U.S. men’s national team a week after the championship match), outside hitter Brett Rosenmeier, and middle Dalton Solbrig.
But even with both teams losing key players, expect this rivalry to be renewed and perhaps even strengthened come 2020.
“I just think [the rivalry between Hawaii and Long Beach is] tremendous for the growth of our game and hopefully there’s a lot of athletic directors and conference commissioners starting to look at that and say, ‘We could use some of that in our conference, or we could use some of that on our campus. We’d like to get some of that men’s volleyball stuff in here and see if we can’t fill our gym and play for national championships,’” Knipe mused. “Hopefully we continue to help grow the game.”