After opening round action, only four schools remain in the battle to earn the NC men's volleyball championship crown. Top-seeded Hawaii will take on Lewis in the first semifinal, while host and defending champion Long Beach State plays Pepperdine on Thursday with the hopes of booking a trip to the national finals. Everything is on the line for these four teams, but before they start to serve later this week, let’s take some time to meet each of the competitors.
The 2019 men’s volleyball season has been everything last year was not for the Rainbow Warriors. After a disappointing conference tournament and failing to reach the NCAA tournament in 2018, the team turned their fortunes around with focus and fierceness. Hawaii battled through a diverse, competitive schedule this season and emerged on the other side with a 27-2 record, a conference title, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a bye to the national semifinals.
The Rainbow Warriors have made five previous appearances in the NCAA tournament but they have yet to win a championship. Their 2002 national championship win was vacated. In their first tournament appearance, the team fell in five sets to Penn State during the initial round of the championship but came back again one year later and earned revenge. The 1996 squad beat the Nittany Lions in four sets before falling to UCLA after a five-set thriller. They would go on to play Penn State in this tournament twice more, beating the Nittany Lions in 2002 and dropping to them in 2015. In 2017, Hawaii returned to the national semifinals, only to lose to Ohio State. Thirteen players from that 2017 team will return to the tournament, however, and they’ll be looking for not just a win, but a national title. Bringing the trophy back to the island would mark the completion of a goal that started for Hawaii after the selection show last year. To end it with a championship as the No. 1 seed, on the home turf of the long-time season No. 1 team, would be even more satisfying.
Long Beach State
Long Beach State, the host of this tournament and the favorite for most of the regular season, comes into the tournament as the defending champions, having beaten Ohio State and UCLA in last year’s tournament. This year, the 49ers enter with a 26-2 record, also boasting four All-Americans, but the pressure is now on them to defend. If they do so, and if they send their seniors out with a second consecutive trophy, they will be the first team in school history to accomplish such a feat. The last volleyball program in NCAA history to win two back-to-back titles came as recently as 2017 with Ohio State winning for the second-straight year under head coach Pete Hanson. The Buckeyes are the one of the most recent powerhouses in the sport, but they won’t have a shot to take home the crown this year, as they failed to earn a bid to the tournament. Now, it’s Long Beach State’s turn to make history.
The No.1 seed in the tournament was within reach of the 49ers all year, but a five-set thriller in the conference tournament against Hawaii ultimately resulted in a loss for the defending champions and knocked them down to second. However, with four All-Americans in the lineup, Long Beach State has everything it needs to fight for a championship win. Senior TJ DeFalco leads Long Beach State as a four-time All-American, only the third athlete in DI-DII volleyball history to earn the honor during each season. DeFalco hails from a volleyball family, as both his parents played the sport recreationally and all six of his siblings are also volleyball players. The senior leads the team in set points and match points and trails team point leader and fellow All-American Kyle Ensing in total points. The two athletes are also joined on the All-American list this year by Josh Tuaniga and Nick Amado, and as a unit, have helped Long Beach state lead the country in aces per set. Their offense has been a large part of the team’s dominance this year, but they’ll need to pull off two more crucial wins to call themselves national champions again. This is the first time in 12 years that the 49ers have hosted an NCAA tournament, and it’s their chance to win the program's third ever title, and first on its home court.
Lewis' win over Southern California in the opening round of the 2019 tournament technically qualified as an upset, with the No. 6 Flyers topping the No. 4 Trojans, but given the recent performances from the Lewis squad, none of this program's tournament success should come as a surprise. The Flyers booked their ticket to the NCAA tournament after dominating the MIVA conference championship, sweeping Loyola and not giving up a single set in any of the two previous conference tournament games. The win gave the Flyers the title in one of the most competitive men's volleyball conferences in the country, as five of the last eight national champions have hailed from the MIVA. Now, they'll face No. 1 Hawaii in what is expected to be a gritty battle between the midwestern college and the top-ranked team from the islands. Pacing the Flyers is redshirt junior Ryan Coenen, a three-time AVCA second-team All-American who is joined on the list this year by two of his teammates Tyler Mitchem and Matt Yoshimoto. They, along with the rest of their squad have combined for a 26-5 season and a bid to national semifinals. Coenen currently leads the team in kills and was named to the MIVA All-Tournament team; he also picked up his 1,000th career kill during the tournament finals.
The Flyers continue their seventh run to the national championship, and with the win over Southern California, they advance to the semifinals where, if they win, they will be just the third team in program history to play in the championship game. The championship game for Lewis in this tournament ended back in 2015 with a 3-2 loss to Loyola, the same team the Flyers beat earlier this month in the conference tournament. Lewis is a team with endurance, a team willing to battle to the end. Winning the first set won't be enough for Hawaii to take them down, as Lewis proved against Southern California. After rallying back from a 0-1 deficit, the Flyers swept the next three sets in the opening round, proving the can build their own momentum. Hawaii is the No. 1 seed, but has not played Lewis yet this year, and if the Flyers can play their own game, they could be a team to watch for an upset that could ruin the magical run for the Rainbow Warriors.
If any of the two teams had a semblance of home court advantage in the second opening round game between Pepperdine and Princeton, the California team had the edge, but the Waves will soon face the true hometown team in Long Beach State when they battle the No. 2 49ers on their home turf. Pepperdine enters the national semifinal game with a 23-6 record, its losses coming against Loyola-Chicago, UC Irvine, UCLA, Southern California, Hawaii and BYU. The Waves however did sweep the MPFS tournament by topping Southern California in the final to earn a spot in the tournament, and they'll play for a bid to the final on Thursday. With one All-American and three honorable mention honorees, Pepperdine faces a challenge against the defending national champions, but the Waves are battle tested and ready for the ultimate competition.
Pepperdine has won more national champions than any other team in this tournament, having claimed the crown in 1978, 1985, 1986, 1992 and 2005 in addition to making the finals in 1976, 1983, 1984, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Head coach David Hunt, who took over the program in 2017, worked with the program during its 2008 run and has been a part of the Waves legacy since then. With his All-American in David Wieczorek and a supporting cast of versatile athletes, Hunt will chase his first title as a head coach with his team in search of NCAA glory. Watch for Pepperdine to come out aggressive against Long Beach State and the big question will be whether they can withstand a grueling battle against the consistent force of the 49ers.