Less than halfway through the first set, the match was decided. UC Riverside’s junior outside hitter Kaiulani Ahuna limped off the floor with an apparent knee injury, giving the Long Beach women’s volleyball team an undeniable advantage.
Ahuna averages 5.25 kills per set, second in the Big West and fourth in the NCAA.Without her, the Highlanders could not maintain the pace the 49ers set with their well-rounded offense.
Long Beach (9-5, 1-0 Big West) never looked back and earned its first conference win 25-17, 25-21, 25-21.
“We’re happy we were able to start off our conference at home,” head coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer said. “Our performance wasn’t our best, but we had a really spread out offense.”
It was a busy weekend for the 49ers, playing four games in the last six days, but there was a different feeling on the floor going into conference play compared to last year. An 8-5 overall record before conference play is an immense improvement for a team that came into conference play 3-10 last season.
The team looked like they were relaxed during warm ups, smiling and talking before the match.
“We came in a lot stronger this season and with our play the last two weeks we have a lot more confidence heading into conference play,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer said.
The starting lineup has a mixture of freshmen and veteran players, with junior outside hitter Hailey Harward and freshmen outside hitter Kashauna Williams leading the way.
In addition, Long Beach has a much healthier squad this season, something that hindered its overall performance last year. The last time the 49ers started conference play 1-0 was in 2016, when Harward and junior middle blocker YiZhi Xue were freshmen.
“The teams that we played in non-conference gave us a gauge of the teams that we’re able to break … we’re ready to compete and take on whoever’s across the net,” senior outside hitter Tyler Spriggs said.
The team is playing at a much faster pace this year with the help of freshmen setter Carly Aigner-Swesey orchestrating the offense.
Connections are being made quicker between freshmen and upperclassmen, making the 49ers a more coherent team.
“Our leadership is strong, which has helped our freshmen who have a lot of pressure to perform right away,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer said.
The third and final set of the match was the most competitive. The 49ers have struggled with closing games the last two years. While it didn’t hurt the team this time, it’s something that the 49ers have been trying to figure out. Fortunately, Long Beach was able to capitalize in the middle of the floor, with Xue’s 11 kills on .588 hitting.
Harward had a relatively quiet night, with seven kills on .300 hitting and 14 digs, while Williams added 11 kills.
“I thought we were consistent, having our setters match up with our hitters,” Harward said.
Long Beach will have a few days to prepare for its first conference road game at 7 p.m. Saturday against Cal State Northridge.
Watch the video below of highlights from the game: