Los Angeles Times

PLAYERS FLOCK TO THE BEACH

They pursue NCAA volleyball championsh­ips for perennial powerhouse Long Beach State

- By Thuc Nhi Nguyen

Long Beach State’s national championsh­ip trophies greet everyone who enters the school’s volleyball offices in Walter Pyramid. Alan Knipe, who has helped the men’s volleyball team put three gleaming prizes on the table a few feet away from his office door, might soon need to clear some more space.

Three years removed from back-toback national championsh­ips, Long Beach State is on the cusp of another successful chapter. The top seed in the NCAA tournament at Pauley Pavilion this week, the Beach (20-5) begins the quest for its third national title in five years Thursday in the semifinals against UCLA or Pepperdine, which play in Tuesday’s quarterfin­al.

After winning one NCAA championsh­ip in the first 47 years of its program, Long Beach State is now a perennial power. The Beach won back-toback championsh­ips in 2018 and 2019, ending a 27-year NCAA title drought for the program on the back of a vaunted senior class that included All-Americans TJ DeFalco, Kyle Ensing and Josh Tuaniga.

In the COVID-19 pandemic’s twisted reality, Long Beach State’s coronation as a men’s volleyball powerhouse feels like a lifetime ago. Two pandemic-interrupte­d seasons following the last title make it feel like the roster changed over in an instant, Knipe said. But changing from a veteran-laden team to a squad with just one senior hasn’t dampened expectatio­ns for the Beach.

“People don’t come here to play for second, right?” junior middle blocker Shane Holdaway said.

The championsh­ip repeat was the culminatio­n of a rebuilding process that began in 2013 when Knipe returned from a three-season hiatus. After coaching the U.S. national team during the London Olympics, Knipe felt like a new coach.

The only person to be involved in all three of Long Beach State’s national titles, Knipe is as familiar as anyone with the program. He starred on the 1991 national championsh­ip as a player, moved to the bench as an assistant and took over the program in 2001.

Spending almost all of his adult life in the same place made it difficult to make radical changes from within, Knipe said. The national team opportunit­y brought a fresh perspectiv­e.

One of the first things Knipe did to establish a new culture of trust, open communicat­ion and accountabi­lity was assign team reading, handing out copies of “The Five Dysfunctio­ns of a Team,” a book that identifies things that plague even successful teams and how to address potential problems.

A junior on that team, assistant coach McKay Smith looked at the assignment with a skeptical eye. It only took a few pages for him to commit to turning the page on Long Beach State’s culture.

The book addressed how teammates can communicat­e, trust and confront conflicts together, setting a foundation for players and coaches who could then use valuable practice time to focus on on-court performanc­e.

The reading exercise has expanded to include different books for each class, including Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and “Legacy,” which focuses on the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team.

“Our culture is by design,” Knipe said. “We work at it. We build it. We talk about it.”

Each year, players present their takeaways from their books to the team. While the books can stay the same, Smith, who is in his fourth year as an assistant, notices how each group’s impression­s change. It reminds the coaching staff of how important it is to embrace the current chapter of the program’s success without comparing it to seasons past.

“We’re not trying to be the 2019 team or the 2021 team or the 2023 team,” Knipe said. “We’re only trying to be the 2022 team.”

Knipe tries not to get ahead of himself when looking at the trajectory of his program, although he could be forgiven if he’s caught smiling at the prospect of building on the success of this year’s underclass­men.

Setter Aiden Knipe, a redshirt sophomore, is playing in his first full season after the pandemic altered the beginning of his college career. The coach’s son is third in the country in assists per set with 11.08.

Big West freshman of the year Alex Nikolov leads the Beach attack with 4.6 kills and 5.56 points per set, which rank third and second in the country, respective­ly. The son of former Bulgarian national team captain Vladimir Nikolov, Alex is, by his coach’s estimation, a “generation­al volleyball player in college volleyball.”

While the talented 6foot-8 outside hitter had opportunit­ies to play profession­ally in Europe immediatel­y after high school, Nikolov was interested in the unique combinatio­n of academics and athletics offered in the United States. He hadn’t heard of Long Beach State until about two years ago. He quickly learned that, despite its lack of internatio­nal name recognitio­n, it was a force in men’s volleyball.

The 18-year-old intends to keep Long Beach State at the top in the coming years.

“I came here to win four national championsh­ips,” Nikolov said with a smile.

 ?? John Fajardo LBSU Athletics ?? LONG BEACH STATE coach Alan Knipe, center, is one reason why the men’s volleyball team is eyeing a third NCAA championsh­ip in five years.
John Fajardo LBSU Athletics LONG BEACH STATE coach Alan Knipe, center, is one reason why the men’s volleyball team is eyeing a third NCAA championsh­ip in five years.
 ?? John Fajardo LBSU Athletics ?? BIG WEST TOP FRESHMAN
Alex Nikolov’s 4.6 kills and 5.56 points per set are among the nation’s best.
John Fajardo LBSU Athletics BIG WEST TOP FRESHMAN Alex Nikolov’s 4.6 kills and 5.56 points per set are among the nation’s best.

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