When Long Beach State won its first NCAA men's volleyball championship 27 years ago, Alan Knipe was a junior middle blocker for the 49ers. On Saturday evening, he coached his alma mater to its second national title and many of his former teammates were there to celebrate with him.
"That group is really special to me, they are salt of the earth guys and it means the world to me that they were here," Knipe said, referring to his 1991 team that beat USC in the finals in Honolulu. "However, it wasn't just them. Between that one and this one we've been in lots of Final Fours and we must've had 150 former players here today.
"That's the kind of culture we've built."
Long Beach rallied to defeat UCLA, 25-19, 23-25, 20-25, 26-24, 15-12, at Pauley Pavilion and at times it felt like the 49ers were playing at home at the Pyramid.
"We just want to thank Long Beach nation ... all the fans, students, administrators and alumni who made the trip up here," said all-tournament outside hitter TJ DeFalco, who finished with 18 kills, 12 digs and three blocks.
Making their 26th appearance in the finals, the Bruins were denied their 20th NCAA title and first since 2006 under former coach Al Scates.
"Long Beach State is a very good volleyball team and they're a deserving champion," UCLA coach John Speraw said. "I really thought we had a shot to beat them today, even before I stepped on the court and when we were down in the first set, I believed, but it wasn't meant to be."
DeFalco's ace gave the top-ranked 49ers (28-1) an 11-7 lead that forced UCLA to call its first timeout. He served another ace to put Long Beach State on top 20-15 and the 49ers took the first set on a serve into the net by Christian Hessenauer.
A crosscourt kill by Jake Arnitz put the third-ranked Bruins (26-8) ahead 24-22 in the second set and they leveled the match two points later when Louis Richard's jump serve sailed long.
Daenan Gyimah blocked Kyle Ensing and DeFalco on back-to-back points to move the Bruins within one set of victory.
UCLA took a 17-13 lead in the fourth set but the 49ers responded with a 7-2 run. Setter Josh Tuaniga surprised the Bruins with a dump, then served a clean ace to force the decisive fifth set.
"At set point the main focus was on mechanics," said Tuaniga, who had 46 assists and was named most outstanding player. "When I served that ball I thought it was out, I was devastated. I was super stoked when it went down."
Nick Amado and Ensing combined for back-to-back blocks and DeFalco followed with one of his own to give Long Beach State a 12-9 lead in the fifth, but Tuaniga served out and Ensing hit wide, trimming the lead to one.
A kill by Arnitz saved a match point, but Amado answered with a kill to punctuate the comeback as the 49ers poured off the bench to celebrate.
"This means the world to us," said Ensing, who led the 49ers with 20 kills and also made the all-tournament team. "Losing in the semifinals the last two years was in the back of our minds, but when it was over I just kept thinking 'We did it!'"
Long Beach, which dethroned two-time champion Ohio State in the semifinals, entered the final having dropped only 13 sets in 28 matches.
After finally breaking through in his 15th season at the helm, Knipe praised the players who made it happen.
"It always comes down to execution and I give our guys a lot of credit for their grit," he said. "This game is a game of failure. Every point ends on an error, either yours or theirs. Does this vindicate the last two years? No, it's a process, it's growth, it's maturity and I couldn't be more proud."