Alan Knipe had to smile.
“It’s a really enjoyable team to coach,” he said. “Not only because of the talent level we have, which is obviously the thing you’re looking for, but for the buy-in and commitment to the routine we have of trying to find a way after success to get better that week.
“And it sounds cliche, but really getting better, identifying team goals on a Monday that we can work on all week and try to be honest with ourselves and ask, ‘Are we getting better each week?’
“We’ve gotten into a really nice routine and rhythm with that and the guys are on it.”
Few observers or opponents would argue.
Top-ranked Long Beach State is not only 21-0, but the lone unbeaten team in the nation.
And after winning back-to-back matches last weekend against No. 4 UC Irvine, its toughest challenger in the Big West, Long Beach is poised to win the league’s inaugural regular-season title.
There are still more conference matches left — home and away with last-place UC San Diego this Friday and Saturday and two matches at No. 7 Hawai’i — and the conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the winner, but clearly Long Beach State is the team to beat in 2018.
Last Friday, when UCI took Long Beach to five, it was the first time the 49ers had to go the distance this season. They’ve won 15 of their matches by sweeps.
“They’re a really high volleyball IQ group,” Knipe said. “It’s a wonderful group and such a joy to be with these guys.”
The pieces are all in place, starting with three of the best in the nation:
— Probable national player of the year in 6-foot-4 junior outside TJ DeFalco, a one-man wrecking crew on all fronts;
— 6-7 junior opposite Kyle Ensing, who could be in the national POW discussion himself;
— Junior setter Josh Tuaniga, who keeps the offense running like a smooth machine and is a heck of a defensive player as well. “Best in the nation,” DeFalco said.
And, unless you follow the team, four others who would help anyone’s roster:
— A Norwegian who seems to defy gravity, 6-1 senior outside Bjarne Huus;
— 6-6 junior middle Nick Amado, who may fly under the radar but is a defensive force;
— 6-6 middle Simon Anderson, who — seriously — is from Middlefart, Denmark, and has been the Big West freshman of the week six times;
— And libero Jordan Molina, a junior who won the job this year and has been stellar.
And, get this: The roster has 27 players. It’s a Long Beach State army at practice each day and at those practices you’d better be open for business:
“It’s not just the six or seven that play,” said Amado, a product of Aliso Niguel, Calif., and a transfer from Orange Coast College who is in his third year at Long Beach. “It’s all 27 of us that make us good. It’s the effort and the grind that every single one of us — all 27 of us — put into practice to make each one of us better. Because we have this saying, that every day we want to strive to get 1 to 2 percent better all the way around and that pushes everyone to get better. And if everyone gets better, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game to practice and it becomes a normal thing for us.”
The second team “has turned it into a complete mob mentality of making it as hard as they can on the first team every day.”
Just 1 and 2 percent …
“If they bring it, we’ve got to bring it,” Amado said. “It’s fun.”
And Long Beach really does continue to get better.
“It really shows that we’re developing as a team,” said Ensing, who is from Valencia, Calif., and — as the mantra says — keeps improving.
“In practice, Coach is pushing me and everybody to get 1 and 2 percent better every day and that’s really pushing me to do my best.”
That’s not lost on Huus, who tried everything he could to get from Foerde, Norway, to NCAA volleyball, sending out videos and emails and finally getting Knipe’s attention. His inspiration was fellow Norwegian Hendrik Mol, who finished a strong career last year at Hawai’i.
Huus may be a shade over 6 feet and isn’t sure how high he touches, but admits “I play big ball.”
Indeed. Huus averages 1.85 kills, has 16 aces, averages 1.29 digs and has 36 blocks.
“I didn’t know that there would be this many good players on one team,” Huus said. “When you play volleyball in Europe, you have 12 good players. Here we have 20 and it’s a dogfight every day in practice. If you don’t play well, you don’t get to play. And I think that’s why we’re doing so well, but we have people behind us who push us.”
Knipe said Huus is a hard worker, on and off the court.
“He is 100 percent all in,” Knipe said. “He came here from Norway on a mission, to get everything out of volleyball from playing in the States that he could and get his degree and he’s crushing it in both.”
On the other pin is DeFalco, one of four of the 27 from Huntington Beach High School, including Tuaniga. DeFalco leads the team with 254 kills — Ensing has 249 — and is averaging 3.63 kills per set while hitting .402. He leads with 37 service aces, is only two behind Molina with 135 digs (1.93/set) and has 41 blocks, six solo.
“And he’s grown so much as a person as well and as a teammate,” Huus said. “He’s got a bright future.”
DeFalco’s feisty — not afraid to engage other team’s fans during a match — and seems to be thinking the game faster than anyone on the court.
“His volleyball IQ is literally contacts ahead of most people at this level,” Knipe said. We have a couple of those guys, which is nice, but his is super special.”
DeFalco, not afraid to freelance during a match, scores in every possible way, from powerful front-row kills to well-placed tips, back-row attacks and a vicious serve, but also is a strong blocker — and comes up with some outrageous digs.
“And he sets ball for us in transition,” Knipe said. “Whatever tools you can think of in volleyball, TJ has them. And he’s very confident that he has them, too, in a really good, solid way. If we need to block more balls, he’s going to be more active on blocking, or he’ll be a little more aggressive serving if we need it, or if we need to set him more or more back-row balls. He takes all of things as personal challenges that you can lump as much as you want on me. Even though we try real hard to not lump as much on him — we try to be as balanced as we can — but there are going to be moments when you have a player like TJ, he’s going to carry you a little bit and that’s OK.”
DeFalco credits his father for forcing him to think outside the box, both as a person and an athlete.
“The mindset that he always told me to have, which is don’t believe the societal norms, and that sprouted into me being a pretty decent observer of the game,” DeFalco said. “From when I was young I’ve been watching international players, from when I was 12 or 13, so I’ve been soaking up as much knowledge as I can. I think all of that translates into the games I play now, because all those random plays I realize I can do them. They’ll pop in my mind (during a match) and I use that previous knowledge.”
And those plays that defy traditional volleyball logic, like a crafty swing or pushing a teammate out of the way to get the block?
“If there’s a volleyball play you can make,” DeFalco said, “you make it.”
Long Beach last won it all in 1991 and has lost in the NCAA championship match five times, in 1970, 1973, 1990, 1999 and 2004. Knipe took over in 2001 and has taken the team to four national semifinals, including the last two seasons.
Maybe 1 or 2 percent will make the difference.
“We’re going to try to bring home another national championship,” Ensing said. “I think we can do that and I really believe that and if we still work in practice and work as hard as we can and get 1 to 2 percent better every day, we can accomplish a lot with this team.”