Before the match had even begun, all eyes were on Hailey Harward. She opened up the night by singing the National Anthem in front of the crowd of 901, which was met with thunderous applause. The spotlight would stay on her throughout Long Beach’s thrilling five set comeback over Santa Barbara 20-25, 18-25, 25-20, 26-24, 19-17.
Going into the match, the junior outside hitter was three digs away from hitting a milestone 1,000 for LBSU. She reached the number at the tail end of the first set and went on to reach a season-high of 24.
“It’s just exciting, I’m excited,” Harward said about the milestone. “It’s been interesting learning defense from two different coaching staffs, and I feel like I’ve been able to take what I’ve learned from Bryan [Gimmillaro] and Erica [Dillard] and when Mike [Campbell] was with us and kind of combining it now, along with our really good game plan.”
It seemed the celebration would be short lived, as Long Beach (13-9, 5-4 Big West) dropped the first two sets to Santa Barbara (12-9, 4-5 Big West) behind stagnant defense and inconsistent offense. The 49ers struggled to get past the Gauchos blockers at first, and couldn’t respond to junior outside hitter Lindsey Ruddins’ aggressive kills, who ended the night with 31, a game high. Long Beach looked out of focus, and needed a change quickly.
“If there’s a glimpse of hope from one person at least, then it’s kind of contagious on the floor,” senior outside hitter Tyler Spriggs said.
That person was freshman outside hitter Allison Martinez, who came out with two quick kills and reignited the team to push them past Santa Barbara in the third set. Long Beach never looked back, and stepped up its defensive efforts while gaining control of the ball.
“It’s so fun to get those defensive plays from our team, we get a lot of energy from that and when we trust each other there’s just a different feeling out there,” Harward said. “We’re kind of a younger team so if we can all just work together and trust each other it’s a different feeling on the court.”
That feeling carried the 49ers throughout the match, as head coach Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer experimented with different lineups to catch the Gauchos off guard. The team kept up its pace through long rallies and with kills at pivotal moments from freshman outside Kashauna Williams and senior outside hitter Emma Kirst.
Long Beach was forced to get creative with its offense, tipping balls in strategic spots on the floor and slamming kills into defender’s arms. Santa Barbara didn’t go down without a fight, creating long rallies as the crowd got louder and more intense.
“Our team just stayed patient with our game plan and just trusted it and we started digging balls and started converting and that’s the effort we need from our defense,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer said. “The matches we’ve been close, it’s our defense that’s won.”
The 49ers spread the defense through multiple players, as freshman setter Carley Aigner-Swesey racked up 14 digs and Spriggs and freshman defensive setter Dylan Dela Cruz added 12 each, a season-high for all three players. The teams battled through extra points in the fifth set, when Harward slammed the ball down past two Gauchos to end her historic night.
“For us to be able to pull out a win like that and show that fire that we’ve had since the beginning of the season … we just haven’t really found a way to show it until tonight so that was really exciting,” Spriggs said. “There’s not anybody on the other side of the net that we’re going to back down to, that we’re going to curl up to I don’t care if you have 31 kills or not, we’re going out there and we’re competing, we’re playing long beach volleyball. After a game like that, that’s a team I would go to war with any day out of the week.”
The win prepares Long Beach for a tough home matchup 7 p.m. Saturday against No. 12 Cal Poly, who is undefeated in conference play.