Why has the Long Beach State men’s team been so dominant this season?
The answer is in the numbers.
The 49ers (24-3) head into Saturday’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament quarterfinal at home against No. 8 seed USC ranked first in the country in hitting percentage (.377) and kills per set (13.57) and second in blocks per set (2.72) and assists per set (12.70).
On the other side of the coin, No. 1 Long Beach State is ranked third in opponent’s hitting percentage at .181 but is first among teams competing in the MPSF, MIVA or EIVA leagues.
“Our success is because of the whole team,” Long Beach State sophomore outside hitter TJ DeFalco said. “Every player on the team has been an equal contributor. Guys on the second team are kicking our butts in practice and that’s what you want. Guys are trying to find ways to get better and that makes us push that much harder.”
DeFalco, the 2016 AVCA newcomer of the year, is part of a trio of sophomores that have opened plenty of eyes around the country this season. He’s the team leader in kills with 373 (4.10 per set) and is hitting .400, while ranking second on the team in digs with 158. Classmate Kyle Ensing is second in kills (301 and 3.34 per set) and is hitting .331 while contributing 142 digs. The Valencia, Calif., product ranks third on the team in blocks at 78.
They are being fed by sophomore setter Josh Tuaniga (11.28 digs per set), who has been playing with DeFalco for more than a decade at various age-group levels. Both are products of the successful Huntington Beach High School program. The three sophomores also rank 1-3 on the team in service aces.
“A lot of preparation and a lot of hard work have gone into each practice and match each week,” said Tuaniga, a second-team All-American selection a year ago as a freshman. “The chemistry on this team is great. We are all a big family and that has brought us together. I’ve only been here two years and I feel like I’ve been here forever.”
Tuaniga said the team had a feeling it could excel this season, but knew feelings alone wouldn’t equal success.
“We knew what we had to do to achieve what we wanted,” he said. “It was about what we were going to do in the gym, focusing on what our coaches are telling us, and bringing it to the practice gym, film and the weight room. It’s paying off now.”
Long Beach State standout senior libero Andrew Sato, who broke the school’s all-time career digs record recently, isn’t surprised the three sophomores are playing as big a role as they are.
“They are great athletes with high volleyball IQs,” he said. “They have that determination to be students of the game and they have a desire to get better. That all fits right in with the culture here. They have worked hard to get to this point.”
Sato said this year’s 49ers team has never accepted its position as being good enough. “There is a work ethic and a determination here to get better every day and with every rep,” he said. “We know there always is an area to improve on even if we’re successful. We never ease up. We continue to water the green spots as coach (Alan Knipe) says.”
Sato attempted to downplay the significant role he has played on the team this season, particularly from a leadership standpoint.
“I guess I bring experience and being someone who leads by example,” he said. “I guess I’m almost like another coach on the court. I’m able to relay information from the coaches to the team.”
Sato said breaking the school digs record took a little to register. “It didn’t sink in about how big a deal it is until a few days after,” said Sato who noted he would like to get into volleyball coaching. “It’s not so much personally, but it’s about the history of the school and the athletic department. I am honored to be No. 1.”
Sato added the team is laser-focused on continuing its winning ways in the MPSF tournament and beyond.
“We have to really bring it to whoever our opponent is,” he said. “Our body of work I believe will make it so we can get to our ultimate goal.”
DeFalco added: “Our goal is to continue the season and win out. We’re going to continue to rely on the family aspect and continue to play together. That’s the right move. We have to play our game and continue to develop every day in practice like we’ve done in the season.”
Long Beach State won its first MPSF regular-season title since 2001 during Knipe’s first season as head coach. This year’s team has won 19 matches by 3-0 tallies, which ties it for the most in program history with the 1991 team that won the NCAA title.
Also of note, Long Beach State is 13-0 at home this season at the Walter Pyramid. The 49ers have home-court advantage in the tournament.
“It’s great,” Knipe told the school’s athletic website about securing home court. We love playing (at home) like every team does, but most importantly we’re more concerned with the brand of volleyball we’re playing. We have to make sure we’re always working to get better. When it’s all said and done, we’re very happy with playing at home.”
One of Long Beach State’s losses this season came to USC in early January (3-1). Long Beach State returned the favor at Walter in February (3-0).
In other first-round action. No. 5 UCLA heads to No. 4 UC Irvine. The two teams split the season series with Irvine winning 3-2 in Irvine on Feb. 24 and UCLA taking a 3-0 win on Jan. 12 in Westwood.
No. 6 Pepperdine travels across the ocean to play No. 3 Hawaii. Hawaii won both contests in Honolulu in late February by 3-0 counts.
The other first-round contest has No. 7 Stanford heading to No. 2 BYU. The Cougars won both matchups in Palo Alto this season (3-1 and 3-0 in late February).
Action continues Thursday, April 20 with the semifinals held at the top remaining seed. The MPSF title match is slated for Saturday, April 22 with the winner earning an automatic bid into the six-team NCAA finals.