Spring Sweeping Starts Early

Men’s volleyball start the season hot with six straight three-set wins

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(LONG BEACH STATE ATHLETICS) From left to right: TJ DeFalco (11) is an efficient hitter with prodigous athleticism. Kyle Ensing (5) towers over the net, using his height to generate velocity on spikes.

By Matthew Gozzip  Athletics Editor

Winter continues into the new year, but the Long Beach men’s volleyball team is beginning spring cleaning early. 

After a long offseason of hibernation, The Beach is back and sweeping top-tier competition with relative ease. LBSU (10-2) currently ranks as the no.2 team in the nation after five straight three-set victories, including four wins against the top 15 teams.

Needless to say, the 49ers are doing well but this season’s squad may one of the best in the storied program’s history. 

The nexus of success for the team is rooted in the top talent that the Beach has attracted. The sophomore trio of setter Josh Tuaniga and the duo of outside hitters, Kyle Ensing and TJ DeFalco, are the foundation for an offense that ranks second in the country in the major categories of hitting percentage, kills and assists. 

Tuaniga averages 11.56 assists a set, the highest tally in the country, nearly half of LBSU’s total points. Without Tuaniga, Ensing, DeFalco and the rest of the offense wouldn’t be able to find the openings to lay down accurate spikes.

DeFalco and Ensing are one of only three other pairs of hitters that both rank top 20 in kills and attacks per set. Ensing utilizes his astounding height (6 feet, 7 inches) to generate more velocity. Earlier in the season, Ensing recorded 35 kills at a .455 clip in back-to-back games against Hawaii, resulting in national player of the week honors from the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). 

DeFalco doesn’t have the same height as Ensing but is just as talented, if not better. “Captain DeFalco”, as he is referred to by several media outlets, has received every prestigious award you can think of, from Newcomer of the Year to first team All-American, since he arrived. He broke the freshman record for total kills and continues to hone his serving skills, making him an even more deadly offensive weapon.

The trio attracts a fair amount of attention for their flashy play the past couple years. What really is putting LBSU over the top this year, though, is their balanced effort from less heralded players. 

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After the departure of middle blocker Steve Gregory, there was a void at the center of the front line. How could anybody replace one of the most decorated players in Long Beach history? Instead of finding a single replacement for Gregory, head coach Alan Knipe found two players up to the task. 

Seniors Bryce Yould and Amir Lugo-Rodriguez are the perfect synthesis of offensive support and stalwart defense, two intelligent veterans alternating roles. Yould possesses a higher kills per set and Lugo-Rodriguez is the top defensive middle blocker in the country (1.34 blocks per set). In this case, performance by committee really is more effective, especially with experienced leaders like Yould and “ALR.”

Speaking of seasoned leaders, Andrew Sato might be the most important piece for the flow of the 49ers. The senior libero is diminutive in stature (5 feet, 10 inches) but not in nature. After two years of limited playing time, Sato accepted a redshirt status, giving himself more time to develop. His patience was rewarded with an extended role and an uncanny trust with his teammates. The selfless savior averages 2.68 digs for set (fourth best mark in the country), diving for any ball hurdled from the top of the net. Once a project in training, Sato is now the the lynchpin to the backend of the Beach defense.

The rest of the team is beginning to buy into Knipe’s system of patience and progression too.  A previously inexperienced group has developed into a deep roster full of talent and skill. Senior outside hitter Andrew Whitt barely saw the court for three years but after redshirting his “senior season,” he evolved into a valuable contributor. 

“It’s good to be out there with the boys all fighting for the same thing,” Whitt said. “We all have our own roles and it’s fun to compete.

And that’s the perfect example as to why The Beach has dominated for so long thus far. With the mix of natural talent, confidence cultivated from trust and an overall appreciation for team dynamics, LBSU could be one of the best teams the storied program has assembled and potentially a national champion.

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