USAV - USA Volleyball

05/06/2019 | News release | Distributed by Public on 05/06/2019 19:24

Okimura Blog: Keep Showing Up, Great Things Will Happen


By Lori Okimura | May 06, 2019, 8:16 p.m. (ET)

Crowd at the 2019 NCAA Division I-II Men's Volleyball Championship

There's a pattern in NCAA Division I and II men's volleyball recently when it comes to the national championship. Back-to-back titles.

Since 2012, the NCAA Men's Volleyball Division I/II National Championship trophy has taken up two-year residency at the following schools: University of Calif., Irvine (2012, 2013), Loyola University of Chicago (2014, 2015), Ohio State (2016, 2017) and Long Beach State University (2018, 2019). There must be something in the water?

Of course, UCLA won more consecutive titles in the Al Scates era than one can count. Pepperdine University under Marv Dunphy is on this list as well.

Many schools have won multiple titles but putting those titles into a neat string of back-to-back national championships is a hard thing to do. Especially these days when the talent is so deep on the bench, and the level of competition is so high across the nation.

At the beginning of the men's volleyball season, I had the opportunity to attend a new tournament, the Off the Block Challenge, in Lebanon, Tennessee. Most men's volleyball fans around the world know 'OTB' and its creator, Vinnie Lopes. He is joined by a virtual army of other bloggers around the country who provide a unique perspective into men's volleyball and provide weekly coverage of matches in five-time zones complete with analysis and links to live streams and other information. They are also seriously sleep-deprived by this time in the season, so if you know them, or see them, please give them a pat on the back or some food and water.

I was intrigued by the Off the Block Challenge format of having matches with NAIA schools competing among NCAA Division I, II and III teams. I spoke with one NAIA student-athlete there who said he had one full-time and one part-time job, a wife and new baby, but he loved being part of his team so much he just keeps showing up. And there it was, could it be as simple as just showing up?

Back in early April, I had the opportunity to visit the Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State University on a night when they hosted the University of Hawaii for a much-anticipated men's volleyball match up. It was some of the best volleyball I've seen in a long time. These two teams who exchanged the top two spots in the national ranking all season put on a great show with Long Beach coming out on top that week. Then a week later, they did it again in Hawaii at the max capacity Stan Sheriff Center where Long Beach once again emerged victorious, ending Hawaii's undefeated season and home win record. Then, a week later, you guessed it, they did it again back in Hawaii for the 2019 Big West Conference tournament where Hawaii earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament before another sold out crowd on live television. It was like watching a 3-week long rally across the Pacific Ocean.

And if the déjà vu hadn't already set in, these same two teams who dominated the season's top rankings, student-athlete honors, and have produced some of the highest level of men's volleyball being played this season were back in the Walter Pyramid for the national championship final facing each other yet again. With their four-set victory, Long Beach capped off an epic season with a 28-2 record (having lost only to USC in the regular season, and Hawaii in the Big West Conference finals). They now have their second NCAA National Championship in as many years under Alan Knipe, who made history having played (1990) and coached (2018, 2019) on a national championship team from the same university.

Knipe and his team have constantly showed up to play big-time volleyball against Hawaii, a team whose players have few flaws, major firepower and huge heart. And then there are the fans. Fans from each of the six teams playing at the tournament site showed up in full force. Princeton, USC, Lewis and Pepperdine fans combined were impressive in volume but still no match for Hawaii's sea of green and white, with it leaves and leis, which was no match for thousands of Long Beach fans dressed in black and gold, with one hilarious hot dog outfit among them.

Alumni for both teams in the final have shown support all year long, with many in attendance like Hawaii's Mark Presho (coaching now with UC Irvine) and Jason Olive (club director of the Los Angeles Volleyball Club) and Long Beach alums Mike Nelson, Jason Stimpfig and Mark Kerins from the 49ers' 1991 national championship team.

As much as I appreciated the fans showing up for sold out matches, I did give fair warning on Facebook that if anyone else called me claiming to be a friend of my neighbor's cousin's mailman, or a long-lost family member, I was going to blow an air horn into the phone. I only had to fire up the horn five times.

Seriously, I think the entire West Coast volleyball community bought tickets back in February the first time they went on sale, and once the teams were confirmed, there was not a ticket to be had for anyone not willing to give up kidney to purchase the StubHub special of $300-900 for the finals. Long Beach even set up a lawn-viewing party for spectators from all schools unable to procure the golden ticket.

Despite my air horn warning, even my seat went to someone on the morning of the finals so he and a friend could sit together. So I can proudly confirm to my mother and auntie watching from Hawaii (each cheering for a different team), that indeed was me lurking courtside behind the Long Beach bench near Gov. Ige from Hawaii in the fourth set trying to avoid being body slammed by his security. Even he showed up in the front row.

The night before the semifinal, the NCAA hosted their annual championship banquet, honoring the teams competing as well as the AVCA All-Americans, NCAA Elite 90 winner (Grant Holve, Lewis), Newcomer (Ryan Wilcox, UCSB) and Player of the Year (TJ DeFalco, LBSU). Thanks to Rob Espero for the kind words at the start of the banquet, which were unexpected, yet much appreciated. Great night for those honored in Long Beach, as well as those recognized with All-American honors from across the country. I especially appreciated seeing UCLA's first team All-American, Micah Ma'a and USC's second team All-American, Jack Wyett in attendance, even when UCLA narrowly missed the NCAA tournament, and USC was eliminated just 24-hours before by Lewis. These two young men still showed up to represent their schools, their teammates and demonstrated the type of leadership and class they have personified throughout their entire careers as NCAA student-athletes.

Among the list of All-American honorees were several other players scheduled to report to Anaheim this month for Team USA duty. In fact, Paul Sunderland said during the ESPN2 broadcast that this national championship had more potential national team members from the USA and around the world competing against each other than any other before it. The U.S. National team already had two players on the roster from Long Beach, seniors Kyle Ensing, and T.J. DeFalco, who received Player of the Year and NCAA tournament MVP honors. Student-athletes from Hawaii and several other teams in the championship tournament either will return home to represent their country or will report to the U.S. National Team training center in Anaheim for a chance to play a role on the Road to Tokyo.

The NCAA is full of Olympic expertise in men's volleyball, always has been. Long Beach Head Coach Alan Knipe was the head coach of the U.S. Olympic team in 2012. His Long Beach assistant coach, Andy Reed, has been a mainstay consultant and coach behind the scenes on multiple Olympic and national teams. David Hunt, head coach at Pepperdine, was on staff for the 2016 Rio Olympic women's team that won bronze. His assistant late this season and head coach emeritus, Marv Dunphy, is a legend in the U.S. National Team program and led the 1988 Seoul Olympic men's team to the gold medal (current U.S. women's National Team head coach Karch Kiraly was a player on that roster) before returning most recently in 2016 to work with Kiraly's and the U.S. Women's Olympic team with Hunt. Pepperdine's volunteer assistant coach, Chip McCaw, was a member of the 2000 Sydney Olympic team alongside USC head coach, Jeff Nygaard. Nygaard played on the U.S. Olympic teams for indoor volleyball at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics before pursuing beach volleyball at the 2004 Athens Olympics, making him one of only four Olympians to represent the United States in both disciplines. USC Assistant Coach Gary Sato was Dunphy's assistant in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and Knipe's assistant at the 2012 London Olympics. Retiring Ohio State University Head Coach Pete Hanson was not in Long Beach as I was told he was already off enjoying his retirement but was recognized by the NCAA for his contributions and accomplishments throughout an amazing career that also included significant time spent with USA Volleyball national teams and programs. Several members of the coaching staff at each participating university have also served USA Volleyball as head and assistant coaches, or consultant coaches in the national team and high performance pipeline. And even more who spent time with the national or Olympic teams have returned to coaching across the U.S. With the trend of new states adding boys' high school volleyball to their state championship programs, and clubs providing a pathway for advancement through USA Volleyball national championships and high performance programming, this is fast becoming an exciting time for growth of boys and men's volleyball in the U.S.

Special thanks to Ethan Walker and his team from the NCAA for a job well done, and to the members of the NCAA's Division I/II Men's Volleyball National Championship committee: Ashley Armstrong (UCLA), Leonard Kaplan (New Jersey Institute of Technology) and Tim Heffron (Purdue University Fort Wayne) for their tireless efforts throughout the season. Thank you to all the student-athletes and teams who participated in this year's tournament, and the schools who support men's volleyball at all levels. Congratulations to the Big West Conference on dominating the finals, and thank you to the officials, volunteers, friends and family who support the student-athletes and teams all season long.

I also wanted to make sure to say thanks to Kristin Fasbender and her team at the NCAA Beach Volleyball National Championship out in Gulf Shores, Alabama. This time of the year these championships are played at the same time and it's gut-wrenching to decide which one to attend. They are equally amazing. If you haven't yet been to either one, or the NCAA Women's Volleyball Championship in December, and perhaps have an opportunity in the future to attend any of these championships in any division, look into the NCAA Experience if available or buy your tickets early!

I've been supporting men's volleyball for a long time, as a club director, then sponsor in the past and a fan today. I am grateful to all those involved in every position at every level, who continue to make opportunities for boys' and men's volleyball to develop and thrive. I hope to see the same opportunities for men's beach volleyball one day at the high school and collegiate level. For all those working towards creating more opportunity, you have my wholehearted thanks.

Finally, congratulations to Long Beach State athletics director, Andy Fee, and thank you to all the Long Beach State event staff, athletics personnel, and volunteers for hosting a wonderful 2019 NCAA National Championship tournament.