Nothing was easy in the beginning for Long Beach. After looking like the 49ers would go on a run, the Pepperdine Waves would respond immediately in a gritty semifinal match.
Long Beach did itself no favors and let Pepperdine hang around with a glaring amount of service errors. In what looked to be an opportunity to jump out to a two set lead, ended up being thwarted by the Waves with a 5-0 run that would eventually lead to a 25-21 second set loss (25-21, 21-25, 25-16, 25-15).
The botched second set served as a wake-up call for the 49ers as they bounced back in the following set. After going back and forth, exchanging points with one another, head coach Alan Knipe called a timeout to regroup the team’s focus. It showed as Long Beach aggressively rallied and it was too much for Pepperdine to handle.
The Waves only scored three more points in the third set and the 49ers capped off a 25-16 set win with a kill from redshirt senior middle blocker Nick Amado.
“Things started clicking together for us. The execution brought a lot of energy and we were able to keep riding that,” Amado said. “We put it on ourselves, but at the same time we also worked together to get out of it.”
Senior outside hitter TJ DeFalco displayed why he’s a two-time AVCA Player of the Year with another outstanding performance that propelled his team after the 49ers looked out of sync. He accumulated 17 kills hitting .500, while also showing off his efficient defensive play with five digs and five blocks.
“[DeFalco] is a huge part of a very talented team. We’ve talked about roles all the time on our team and it’s okay … every team has kind of their star power,” Knipe said. “TJ is the straw that stirs the drink for us and it always has been that way.”
Things weren’t going well offensively for senior opposite Kyle Ensing up until the fourth set. Ensing was hitting .143 on 21 attempts but he provided immense service pressure that would spark the 49ers. During a sequence in the fourth set, Ensing dropped three service aces in a row to put him up to six total on the night.
“To be able to get himself going throughout the match, especially behind the end line … just shows the confidence he has in himself,” Knipe said. “It took him a while to get going, but once he got it going, he was a lot to handle and obviously that’s why we got the separation we got because we had more balance across the net.”
It’s like Long Beach flipped a switch and never turned the light back off. After every block, every service ace and every kill, the 49ers and the fans went wild and that momentum carried them throughout the match. Feeding off Amado’s energy after every play, the team played inspiring volleyball and looked like men on a mission with the end goal of another banner in the rafters.
With Long Beach advancing to the national championship match Saturday, the 49ers will get a shot at redemption as the match will be a Big West title rematch featuring the Rainbow Warriors. Hawai’i advanced after defeating Lewis in the first match of the Final Four. This will be the fourth time the 49ers will play the Rainbow Warriors this season.
The last time these two teams met featured a five set thriller in the Big West Tournament championship match in which Hawai’i came out victorious. Long Beach will look to avoid the same result and defeat them to capture back-to-back national championships.
The 49ers will face the Rainbow Warriors Saturday 5 p.m. in the Walter Pyramid in the NCAA Tournament championship match.