LOS ANGELES – Josh Tuaniga was, in a word, devastated.
The Long Beach setter hadn’t meant to try anything special. He had, in fact, attempted just the opposite, repeating the same mantra over and over, “just the mechanics, just the mechanics.” Only the mechanics didn’t work. He thought he hit his serve long.
He thought wrong.
The ref’s red flag pointed down. His serve – just the mechanics, just the mechanics – had caught the back corner.
Set, Long Beach State.
Tuaniga dropped his shoulders, leaned back, breathed a sigh of relief, and stared at the throng of Long Beach State fans, which comprised roughly half of the raucous 7,248 in attendance at UCLA for Saturday night’s NCAA National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship title match.
“When he dropped that red flag, I was like ‘Oh!’ ” Tuaniga said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together. “It was all good from there.”
Indeed. They were going to five.
And they would win in five — 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-12 — claiming their first national championship since 1991 on what proved to be a great showcase night for NCAA men’s volleyball.
Long Beach State. the Big West champion, finished 28-1 as it beat UCLA of the MPSF for the third time this season. The Bruins ended 26-8.
“What can you say about that game?” Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe asked. “I’m not surprised. That’s a really good team.”
For much of the match, too, it appeared UCLA may have been the better team, a nod to a brilliant run from the serving line in sets two, three and half of the fourth. Bruins coach John Speraw has preached it all year long, to the point that there’s not much point in him fielding questions on the matter: His team is going to bomb serves.
If they’re missing serves, they’re still bombing.
If they’re making serves, they’re still bombing.
Bombs away for a team that finished with seven aces and 26 errors.
In the second set alone, UCLA earned four points off Dylan Missry serves, staking the Bruins to a 24-22 lead they’d finish, 25-23 tying it at one set apiece.
The third was much of the same: Missry serving UCLA out of a 6-4 deficit to take a 7-6 lead. Missry taking service tied 17-17, leaving the line up 22-18, a lead UCLA wouldn’t relinquish, finishing the set up 25-20.
One set for a national championship.
And for 17 points in the fourth, “we were doing everything we needed to do,” Speraw said. “We were bombing serves, and we needed to do that against this team. It’s such a great offensive team.”
Jake Arnitz was bombing. Daenan Gyimah was bombing. Missry continued unloading his fusillade, one after the next, keeping The Beach out of system when they were able to get a platform on Missry’s missiles at all.
And then slowly, steadily, Long Beach State, down 11-6, just 14 points from letting another national championship slip out of its grasp, began pushing back, and the Bruins began ceding ground.
An error here to make it 11-8, another for 11-9. A double –- the only one called on the night –- for 15-13. A service error to let The Beach off the hook, down 17-14. Another error to tie it up, 18-18. TJ DeFalco recorded one of his 18 kills to grant Long Beach State its first lead of the set, 19-18.
Sideouts were traded to 20-20. Speraw thinks this is where fatigue may have begun to set in, when the artillery may have been diminished. Missry shrugged at the notion. He wasn’t tired.
“I just did the same thing I did the whole game,” he said. “Just hit it as hard as I can and hopefully it goes in. I wasn’t thinking I was fatigued at all.”
In the end, it doesn’t much matter the reason that UCLA missed four consecutive serves after tying the set, 20-20. Serving was a large reason why the Bruins were tantalizingly close to the school’s first national title since 2006 in the first place. And, as Speraw said, Long Beach State is too good offensively to roll one in for the sake of it, for when Oliver Martin put one in play, Tuaniga dumped it for a 25-24 lead.
Seconds later, it was Tuaniga who was displaying the value of serving, acing it in the back left corner, completing an improbable five-point comeback, extending the night to a fifth set.
“It’s like any other life lesson,” Knipe said. “You get some failure, and what are you going to do with it? Our guys had some determination, and they did something about it.”
They did it again in the fifth. Down 9-8, Long Beach State’s Kyle Ensing picked up a kill, and then, alongside middle Nick Amado, blocked UCLA’s Christian Hessenauer, and then did it again. The blocking spree was then extended by DeFalco, who pushed the lead to 12-9.
A service error from Tuaniga and a hitting error from Ensing, who turned line a little too hard, put UCLA right back in it, down just 12-11. Then Missry, the Bruins’ source of so many points throughout the evening, at the line.
13-11 Long Beach.
A moment later, match may have proven Speraw’s point: You cannot serve Long Beach easy. It may be just as well to miss.
Down 14-12, Gyimah took a little heat off his serve. A perfect pass. One last perfect set from Tuaniga. One final kill out of the middle for Amado, his fourth and most significant of his young career.
Ensing led with 20 kills, hit .326, had four of the Beach’s nine aces against 19 errors, five digs and four blocks. DeFalco hit .419, had two aces, 12 digs and four blocks, one solo. Bjarne Huus had six kills and eight digs and Tuaniga finished with three kills in three tries with no errors, an ace and five digs. Amado had six blocks.
And the core returns — Tuaniga, DeFalco, Amado and Ensing are juniors. And should they get there — they will play at home in the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach in 2019.
“There’s no way to reproduce that,” Knipe said. “It’s our group in the gym that gives us as much pressure as they can and creating an anxiety as close to game-like as you can create in your own gym. But there’s no substitute for going through these moments.”
There is really hardly much precedent for these moments at all. DeFalco knows. Months ago, when speaking of the possibility of a national championship, which would only be the second in school history, he spoke not of what it would mean to him personally, to see yet another accolade piled atop an impressive list of them.
Instead he spoke on what it would mean to the Long Beach State community, the first national championship in nearly three decades. His career will go far, no doubt, though he’s wise enough to understand that someday his shoulder will give out, another outside will come along, his career will prove mortal.
But a national championship?
Those remain etched in history.
“I saw a group of guys and they were alumni from the ’91 team that were just looking for it,” DeFalco said. “Them, I want to say thank you for all the support … I want to say thank you to all the community and LB nation.”
Gyimah led UCLA with 21 kills, hit .375, had an ace, a dig and four blocks, one solo. Hessenauer had 12 kills and 10 digs, but hit .152 and had no blocks. and five serving errors. Missry had 11 kills, hit .364, had six aces and six errors, three digs and a block. And Jake Arnitz added 10 kills, hit .381, and had six digs and three blocks.