A streak was broken, a hot dog was surfing and the crowd was roaring as the Long Beach men’s volleyball team showed its resilience, coming back after being down two sets to one and topping Hawai’i in five sets.
In front of a crowd of 4,011, the second highest attendance record inside the Walter Pyramid, senior outside hitter TJ DeFalco went into a zone that no one on the floor could match. He propelled the 49ers (24-1, 9-0 Big West) over the Rainbow Warriors (25-1, 8-1 Big West) in a five set showdown (24-26, 25-22, 16-25, 25-16, 15-13) Friday night to reclaim the title of number one in the nation.
After seemingly cruising through every opponent, Hawai’i was finally tested. Treading in unfamiliar territory and dropping multiple sets, the adversity was too much to handle for the Rainbow Warriors. Their undefeated record was spoiled by the 49ers, similar to last season where Hawai’i did the same thing to Long Beach.
“The Pyramid is such a great place to play because the fans are literally right on top of the floor and you can feel them and the energy, especially in that fourth and fifth set,” head coach Alan Knipe said. “They’re a big part of this whole journey, this Long Beach nation, and believe me we feel it.”
Long Beach had an opportunity to steal the first set after falling behind late. Trailing 23-18 in the first set, Knipe called a timeout in an effort to regroup his team. The 49ers went on a 3-0 run, putting pressure on the Rainbow Warriors. Continuing the rally, Long Beach forced extra points as they tied the match at 24 after a block. The rally fell short as Hawai’i composed itself, eventually capping off the set 26-24.
The 49ers looked deflated after the third set where they produced their lowest output of the season, at 16 points, in a match that was seemingly close all night. After a disappointing performance in the third, senior opposite Kyle Ensing and DeFalco displayed immense service pressure that made it difficult for Hawai’i to get anything going in the fourth set.
After a few service aces from DeFalco and Ensing, both players efficiently displayed block and defense, limiting the Rainbow Warriors to a .375 hitting percentage while the 49ers produced a .615 to dominate the fourth set. Both DeFalco and Ensing had 18 kills apiece on the match, but it was their defense, nine digs from DeFalco and seven blocks from Ensing, that ignited the team throughout the night.
“[The Rainbow Warriors] bring a lot of heat from the end line, and it causes some problems for us,” DeFalco said. “They’re blowing us up, and we’re blowing it back so we have to be good.”
The 49ers’ dominance was evident by the crowd’s enthusiasm: a wave broke out and a roar echoed throughout the Pyramid.
It is only part one of the clash between two Goliaths, as both these teams prepare themselves for a rematch Saturday night.
“It’s not easy for anyone, especially the players,” Knipe said. “We’re built for it, we train for it and we’ll be ready to go tomorrow night.”
Long Beach will battle with Hawai’i 7 p.m. Saturday inside the Walter Pyramid for a chance claim sole possession of the Big West after clinching co-Big West champions regardless of tomorrow’s outcome.