Undefeated through its first six games to start the season, the Long Beach State men’s volleyball team finally suffered its first loss, getting swept by UCLA Thursday night on the road.
Last season, Penn State snapped a five-game winning streak for The Beach to open the season, one win less than they got to this year.
These two LBSU teams however are a lot different in makeup and star power following the departure of AVCA National Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year Alex Nikolov. As the first player to ever be awarded both honors in a season, the Bulgarian outside hitter turned pro at the conclusion of the 2022 season.
“I think you don’t replace someone like Alex with one person,” head coach Alan Knipe said. “What you do is you, hopefully, replace them with some quality recruits, like we did.”
One of the key additions was sophomore outside hitter Sotiris Siapanis who transferred from Ohio State. He has played every set this season and was named Big West Defensive Player of the Week on Feb. 6 after the game against Loyola Chicago.
The impact from Siapanis isn’t just on the defense, as he leads the conference averaging 0.91 aces per set, a stat he is also ranked second in the nation in. The other outside hitters that have helped fill the hole left by Nikolov’s departure include redshirt sophomore Sebastian Rodriguez, junior Nathan Harlan and redshirt freshman Connor Bloom.
“I think Sotos (Siapanis) has done a great job for us,” Knipe said. “All these guys have contributed greatly to us having more depth in that position.”
It was not a part of the plan for The Beach to need to replace Nikolov so suddenly with the expectation that he would stay and help LBSU compete for National Championships. His family name and skill meant that he has always been in the limelight when it came to volleyball.
“It was a little earlier than I think people wanted, including Alex,” Knipe said. “The team was too right for him and in the league he wanted to play in. At that point you just want to be happy for the kid that he’s accomplishing some of his lifelong goals as early as he is.”
Without Nikolov, some of the team’s other stars have helped The Beach stay close to the top of the volleyball spectrum.
At libero Mason Briggs has solidified himself as one of the best players in the country since his debut in 2020. Last season he was named to the 2022 AVCA All-American first team and the Big West Conference All first team.
Briggs has shown a high level of maturity at The Beach, winning the 2022 LBSU student-athlete Pyramid Leadership Award.
“Obviously losing Alex is a big loss especially with the looks of it, Player of the Year and all that,” Briggs said. “But I think we’re much more balanced this year.”
A new dynamic for The Beach, focused on being a better overall team and relying less on an individual player, has been successful early in the season for LBSU. It doesn’t mean though that the team hasn’t missed Nikolov both on and off the court.
“Other guys have stepped up but we miss him for sure, and we wish him the best and we’re happy for him,” junior outside hitter Clarke Godbold said. “He’s doing really well in Italy right now so I’ve been following along.”