The 49ers suited up for another match in the Walter Pyramid Thursday night, but found themselves in unfamiliar territory hours later. With their backs against the wall, down 2-1 for the first time all season, Long Beach State men’s volleyball had to regroup and rally together to defeat No. 3 Santa Barbara in five sets 22-25, 25-15, 26-28, 25-17, 15-11 and keep its program record-winning streak alive.
Behind a career-high tying performance 27 kills from senior outside hitter Kyle Ensing and a season-high 55 assists from senior setter Josh Tuaniga, the 49ers refused to go down quietly in their first challenge of the season.
“The competition level was at its highest I’ve ever seen,” Ensing said. “It was a great game, a fun game to play in and everyone rose to the occasion. I loved the competition.”
The Gauchos ruled the first set, refusing to fall for Tuaniga’s sneaky dumps, blocking the 49ers’ usual aggressive play. Long Beach came into the night shaky and had mental lapses, racking up seven service errors in the first set compared to Santa Barbara’s two and was unable to earn a single block.
Despite out-hitting the Gauchos .356 to .189, the team did not lead once in the first set. The 49ers dropped their second set of the season due to a net error in the first, 25-22.
“Santa Barbara is a good team and came in and played really well out of the gate,” head coach Alan Knipe said. “We kind of went against some of our strong tendencies, we didn’t’ serve great, we didn’t block a lot of balls. We got a nice rhythm offensively so we focused on that instead.”
Long Beach looked more like itself in the second set, keeping a two or three point cushion throughout the entire set. The Gauchos called a timeout late in the second in an effort to regroup, but the 49ers found their groove and didn’t look back for an easy second set 25-15.
It turned into a defensive ruling match, with the 49ers and Gauchos refusing to let each other get easy points. Long Beach was held to .226 hitting while the Santa Barbara hit .265 as a result of long, tough rallies.
Santa Barbara constantly caught Long Beach off guard, as one kill hit Ensing in the chest, then bounced off of Nick Amado’s head and into Louis Richard’s hands for a bump, showing how out of focus the team was. After going on a 6-0 run late in the second, it was no surprise when the Gauchos were able to outlast the 49ers in extra points 28-26, finding themselves fighting an uphill battle for the first time this season.
“We’ve been in this situation before in a game that had much higher stakes, so we’re comfortable in this situation, we’re ready for it,” Amado said, referring to the five set UCLA championship match last season. “We have enough trust in each other to grind it out and at the end of the day what’s gonna get you the win is the trust in each other.”
Santa Barbara kept its foot on the pedal in the fourth set, making a comeback for Long Beach seem nearly impossible. With determination, multiple timeouts and an all star performance from Ensing, Long Beach clung onto its lead and rode it for a 25-17 fourth set win.
In its first fifth set of the season, Long Beach took it as a wake up call. Communication finally clicked into place with Ensing piling on seven kills, Tuaniga sneaking in dumps and Richard digging every Gaucho kill attempt. The 49ers caught an early lead in the fifth, but gave the Gauchos breathing halfway through the set.
“As a coach you don’t hope we lose sets, but these moments are huge, these test the belief in one another even if it’s not going well on the scoreboard,” Knipe said. “So many lessons learned in this match that will serve us well in the future.”
Capping off his career-high night, Ensing went up to serve the ball and spiked it into the right back corner past a Santa Barbara defender, earning the 15-11 match win and wrapping up an exciting night for Long Beach.
The 49ers will travel to Santa Barbara for a rematch against the Gauchos 7 p.m. Friday.