The No.1 ranked Long Beach men’s volleyball team did something that it hasn’t done all season. On Friday, the 49ers played five sets and were pushed the distance against No. 4 UC Irvine edging the Anteaters in a five set thriller at the Walter Pyramid.
Long Beach (20-0, 5-0 Big West) would start the match with a slow and flat energy. The team would struggle to put kills away at the net in the first set, hitting a unimpressive .192
UC Irvine (17-6, 3-2 Big West) would take the first set, coming out with a storm of energy and transferring that into solid defensive play which would last the rest of the game. Irvine would hold Long Beach to a .281 attacking percentage, well below its season average of over .400.
“These are two good teams, it was a close match even though the sets may have been lopsided,” UC Irvine head coach David Kniffin said.
After the dropped first set, the 49ers would find their rhythm and take the next two sets, by a combined 19 points. Long Beach cruised with momentum into the fourth set, the 49ers would jump out to an early 4-0 lead. Irvine counterered with a 4-0 run of its own, paving the way to an action-packed fourth set that would see nine ties and three lead changes.
In the fifth and final set of the match, junior outside hitter TJ DeFalco would cap off his remarkable night going four for five in kill attempts and lead the 49ers to their 20th victory of the season by a final of 22-25, 25-15, 25-16, 25-21, 15-9.
DeFalco’s biggest moment of the night came on defense in the fifth set, when he would get a one-on-one matchup against senior outside hitter Aaron Koubi. DeFalco would win the matchup with a solo block and bring the crowd of 2,077 fans to their feet for match point. He would finish with an impressive statline of 22 kills (.326), seven digs, five blocks, five service aces and an assist. DeFalco’s sixth kill of the night moved him into 17th place on the all-time kill list at Long Beach State.
“That’s a heck of a statline. Players that put up those numbers make me look like a better coach,” head coach Alan Knipe said.
Junior setter Josh Tuaniga would also prove to be pivotal on the night going for a double double with 48 assists and 11 digs, Tuaniga would also add four kills and two blocks.
“I thought we battled pretty hard tonight,” Tuaniga said. “Coach told us over and over that it was a slugfest and im just proud of my boys that they were able to stick with it.”
Junior libero Jordan Molina would have a career night tallying a personal best 14 digs, Molina would also add two assists on the night.
The five set match would be the first time all year that the 49ers would be pushed to the brink this season.
“We need those adversity moments. These are moments that you find out about your team’s character and resolve,” Knipe said. “When we talked after the fourth set you could feel the energy, and there is no other way to describe that other than you have been around your guys long enough that you like the look in their eyes.”
The 49ers would counter their off night at the net with an incredible night from behind the service line, out acing the anteaters 9-3.
“We prep it every day in practice. Looking for repeatable pressure from the end line,” Associate head coach Nick MacRae said.