After leading the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team to a second consecutive Final Four in 2017, it is no surprise that a professional team in Italy came knocking on the doorstep of junior outside hitter TJ Defalco to recruit him.
This offer left DeFalco with a decision to make.
DeFalco, 20, took a few months to weigh his options on whether or not his collegiate career would be over. He had just come back from playing for the United States 2017 FIVB World League team when he finally decided to commit to his final two seasons at Long Beach.
“I was never really torn, it’s just a long decision making process,” DeFalco said. “I wanted to make sure I covered all my bases.”
In order to avoid possible NCAA violations, all contact with the Italian team was through his father, Torey, so the specific team has not been named.
DeFalco’s decision to stay and see his college career through at Long Beach has brought ease and stability in his three years at program.
The reigning AVCA player of the year is one of the focal players on the No. 1 ranked team through a remarkable 14-0 season by contributing 154 kills (.411), 90 digs, 29 assists and 22 blocks. He leads the team in digs and is second in kills, four behind junior Kyle Ensing.
There were two particular aspects about the decision that kept the Huntington Beach native in Long Beach. He felt the brotherhood he shared with junior setter Josh Tuaniga and Ensing could not be broken just yet.
“With Josh [Tuaniga], its been five years of spending everyday together,” DeFalco said. “We went to high school together and now here, you can’t get much closer than that.”
DeFalco and Ensing go back as far as playing on the same youth club team as teenagers.
“These guys were a huge part of my decision, mostly because I really wanted to finish it out with them,” DeFalco said. “It’s also just so much fun playing with them. Kyle [Ensing] is probably my best friend on the team and Josh [Tuaniga] is my brother. We have a really close relationship.”
The thought of being a national champion with his brothers continues to drive DeFalco, helping turn him into the leader that the team feeds off of in its most crucial times.
“I have been working a lot on my team dynamic,” DeFalco said. “People have said things about me before but at the end of the day it’s just my team that I care about.”
DeFalco has taken his game to another level in the past week in the teams back-to-back matchups against No. 2 UCLA. He racked up a combined 40 kills, 18 digs, 10 assists and seven blocks, leading the team to its two biggest games of the season. Matches like these remind head coach Alan Knipe of the first time he saw potential in DeFalco.
It was at a U-15 volleyball tournament when Knipe first saw on DeFalco.
“[DeFalco is] super talented; good volleyball player but a special right arm,” Knipe said.
DeFalco has blossomed from a raw, aggressive and talented 15-year-old to a multi-faceted and decorated volleyball player. Some of his accomplishments include the 2016 and 2017 AVCA All-America First Team, the 2017 Karch Kiraly Award (given to the nations best outside hitter) and the 2017 AVCA Player of the Year.
As DeFalco weighed his options in the offseason, it left Tuaniga with new role to fill.
“I was holding the fort down,” Tuaniga said. “We created something here and I wanted him to see that and he did.”
DeFalco had another problem with leaving for the big leagues; his unfinished business with this team. The 49ers have lost in the Final Four two consecutive seasons now. DeFalco still believes the team can take care of that goal.
“He has a ton of faith in the program and in what we’re doing and more importantly in the guys he gets to go to battle with,” Knipe said. “We have a nice group and a chance to do some good things, and I don’t think he was ready to walk away from that.”
While the Italian offer in the offseason left plenty of people wondering whether the star sophomore would return, one person who was never worried was his head coach.
“You could feel the ebbs and flows of the emotion, you always could hear in the back of his mind, ‘this sounds great but my guys, my team, my program, I want to graduate,’” Knipe said. “There was always this ground swelling that this is a part of my life that i’m not done with yet.”
DeFalco’s choice to remain a 49er for his entire college career will now put him in position to climb milestones such as the 49er all-time kills list, where he currently sits in 18th place. The superstar junior has one goal that he needs to take care of before he leaves campus: standing next to his brothers as national champions and cementing his legacy in college volleyball lore.