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UCLA

Long Beach State enters the Final Four in men’s volleyball as the favorite

The Final Four is set for the NCAA men’s volleyball championships and Long Beach State is the favorite heading into the semifinal matches Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.

The top-seeded 49ers (26-1) won the Big West Conference regular-season and tournament titles, and their only loss was in five sets to Hawaii — a defeat they avenged with a 3-0 victory in the conference final. In 27 matches, the 49ers have lost only 12 sets, and they reeled off a program-record 24 straight wins.

Long Beach State plays Ohio State (25-5) at 5 p.m. in the first semifinal and the biggest concern for coach Alan Knipe’s team might be rust (the 49ers haven’t played since April 21). They are looking to break through following consecutive NCAA semifinal defeats.

“It’s part of the deal,” Knipe said of the extended break. “If you play the season out and get rewarded with the time off, it’s what you want. We prepped for this over the course of the year. We had a bye in the conference tournament as well. It’s not like we haven’t been playing volleyball.”

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Knipe was selected Big West coach of the year and just signed a five-year contract extension. Knipe, in his 15th year at the helm, was a junior middle blocker on the 49ers’ only national championship team in 1991.

Long Beach has five All-Americans, led by Big West player of the year TJ DeFalco, a junior outside hitter who leads the team with 3.61 kills per set. Joining DeFalco on the first team are junior opposite hitter Kyle Ensing and junior setter Josh Tuaniga. Junior middle blocker Nick Amado made the second team, and Simon Anderson, a freshman middle blocker from Denmark, earned honorable mention.

Ohio State beat UC Irvine 25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 22-25, 16-14 on Tuesday at Pauley, led by senior outside hitter Nicolas Szerszen and freshman outside hitter Jake Hanes, who had 22 kills apiece. The Buckeyes are seeking their third straight national title.

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“We’re not the biggest team and we’re not the best blocking team, so we have to rely on the quality of our serve to get other teams a little out of system,” Ohio State coach Pete Hanson said. “Hopefully we can get some big blockers in front of either [Bjarne] Huus or DeFalco. Serve it off the net a little bit so we know where the ball’s going and get dialed in. Then it’s Kyle Ensing on the back side. ... That’s a three-headed monster.”

Second-seeded Brigham Young, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s regular-season and tournament champion, earned a bye into the semifinals and plays UCLA at 7:30 p.m. in a rematch of the Cougars’ four-set triumph in the MPSF finals in Provo, Utah, on April 21.

Now, BYU returns to the arena where it won the first of its three national titles in 1999.

The Cougars (22-6) are led by senior outside hitter Brenden Sander, who had 18 kills, five blocks and two aces in BYU’s last match, the 17-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-21 win against UCLA. This will be the fourth matchup of the season between the MPSF rivals, who split a pair of regular-season meetings, each winning 3-0 on its own floor. BYU eliminated Long Beach State before being swept by Ohio State in the finals last year.

UCLA earned an at-large bid to the championships and beat Harvard in four sets in the opening round Tuesday.

“We’re real pleased with the win,” UCLA coach John Speraw said. “I don’t think it was our best volleyball of the year — we’re hoping that’s still ahead of us — but we’re excited to be playing in the Final Four again. Obviously, being at home is going to be a great experience for us.”

Not only do the Bruins (25-7) have home-court advantage, they have history on their side. They own a record 19 NCAA titles — all under former coach Al Scates — and this is the 15th time they have hosted the men’s championships. UCLA’s last title came in 2006 when it swept Penn State. The Bruins’ last trip to the Final Four came two years ago when they lost to Ohio State.

Senior opposite hitter Christian Hessenauer led the Bruins with 22 kills and 10 digs against Harvard. Senior outside hitter Jake Arnitz and sophomore middle blocker Daenan “Kofi” Gyimah each added 11 kills, and senior middle blocker Oliver Martin was nine for nine in kill attempts.

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The championship match is set for 4 p.m. Saturday.


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