Leading up to the NCAA Tournament matches, VolleyMob is sitting down for a brief conversation with the head coach of each of the seven remaining teams for a quick update on their season, their personnel and their outlook heading into the final matches of 2018.
Long Beach State held down the No. 1 spot in the AVCA poll for all but the preseason poll and week 1 polls and went 24-0 before dropping its regular season finale to Hawaii. The 49ers rebounded with a pair of wins in the Big West Tournament, including a dominating sweep of the Rainbow Warriors in the championship match.
As the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, LBSU earned a bye to the Final Four, but head coach Alan Knipe says that the team will continue its weekly routine of attempting to reach small goals of one or two percent improvement even in the final week of the season.
We chatted with him about his star trio of TJ DeFalco, Kyle Ensing and Josh Tuaniga and how his team got to this point and his game plan for championship week.
When we last spoke in February, your team was 12-0 and looking to ride that wave as long as possible. Here today, you stand at 26-1 and as the Big West regular season and tournament champions. Talk to me about that journey and what enabled you to get to this point.
I think that our guys have done a really good job of just chopping up the season into a one week at a time type thing. It sounds very cliché, but really having a detailed plan of attack and attention to detail to a one week at a time thing is easier said than done. You can say that is what we are going to do, but to come in every Monday and break down video whether we win or whether we lose and break that down into team and individual goals for the week of areas of improvement to try to get one or two percent better is not as easy as it sounds to repeat it every Monday.
I give our guys credit. They have bought into it and they have committed to it and, for the most part, they have done it every week. We were able to keep that going and not get caught up listening to all of the noise outside of us that doesn’t pertain to us getting better and for that, the results kind of took care of themselves because we were taking care of the process and the things that we could control.
You were tested late by UC Irvine and Hawaii. Does that prepare you for what you are going to face during this NCAA Tournament? Did having those tests and eventually losing to Hawaii in the regular season finale, did that set a fire for things to come?
Absolutely. I think it was great. I think the Irvine matches were great for us – to be challenged. We went five here and a tough four at their place. And then the matches in Hawaii, we played the max, 10 total sets in two nights in a really great environment against a team playing with lots of purpose, playing to make sure they could get the No. 2 seed in the Big West Tournament. I was super proud of our guys because when we were over there, we had already wrapped up the No. 1 seed. The guys were super mature and handled it great as far as to make sure we were using those matches in a productive way for us and playing with a lot of pride. There was no way we were going to back off. We played really hard both nights. We weren’t as clean as we wanted to be. We had some guys cramping that couldn’t finish the match and that was kind of unique. So, we dealt with some adversity over there, but we fought hard. Ultimately, we didn’t execute as well during the end of the second night as we did the first night and we lost the match. I thought that was great for our guys. It exposed some things we could probably be a little bit better at. It opened us up to a late season example of the postseason and I think it was wonderful for preparing us for the Big West Tournament.
We had the bye on Thursday so to play the back-to-back Friday, Saturday against really good teams and teams that would be really emotionally charged because it was a one-and-done situation. I think we were significantly more prepared because of what we went through the weekend before.
Having lost that match the weekend before and then facing Hawaii again in the Big West Tournament championship match, it seemed like your team had something to prove and maybe surprised some people with the score, winning in a dominant sweep after the other ones had gone five.
I don’t think it was a revenge thing or trying to clean up something from the weekend before, I think it was more of we learned some lessons about ourselves the weekend before and we are going to make sure that we take care of what we can control and play at a level that is acceptable to us. I don’t think that happened in Hawaii and I think the guys were more irritated at themselves – and to be honest, all of us as a program, as coaches and players felt like we could have done things a little differently – and we weren’t going to make the same mistake twice. I thought the whole group handled it really well.
There are likely going to be comparisons drawn between last year’s team and this one. Both teams won the conference tournament title and made it to the NCAA Final Four. Do you kind of erase that from your memory and just focus on this year or do you draw from it?
First of all, you can’t dwell on any of it because they are completely different scenarios and you are playing different teams. And we have four new starters this year.
You don’t want to forget though. You want to ensure that there are some lessons learned. In those tournaments, you have to give credit to the fact that there are some really good teams playing and only one team is going to come out. Unfortunately last year, we were one of those teams that felt like it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. That was unfortunate. It didn’t erase what the guys had done all season long. But, there are going to be three teams that feel like that. So, I think that as long as we can take the lessons and apply them … and lessons learned can be technical and tactical and they can emotional, or even just about handling the event itself, the media, the travel… You just have to make sure you are taking the positive out of every experience and applying it to the next chance you get to do something and I think this group has done a really good job with that. That would be the plan again, to take the lessons learned from the last two seasons that we have been in the Final Four to help this team be the best prepared they possibly can.
At 26-1 and as the No. 1 team throughout most of the year, it goes without saying that you knew you were in the NCAA Tournament field, but it still had to feel pretty good to see that No. 1 seed pop up next to your name on the selection show. What was that moment like?
I think you know you are in, but you don’t have control of your seed. You feel like you are probably going to get that, but it was a fun moment for the guys. It doesn’t mean a ton. You have to appreciate the small wins along the way too whether that be winning the regular season conference title or the conference tournament or getting the No. 1 seed. You understand and keep it in perspective of what it means in the big picture, but it is ok to enjoy those little wins as well.
When you look at how things shook out this year statistically, you have to be pleased that you hit .379 as a team and have five guys sharing the load offensively. Talk about the statistics. What did you see as your team’s strength? Was it the balance?
That has been the goal from Day 1 and it was obviously a lofty goal to keep our team hitting percentage high without reverting back to setting Kyle (Ensing) and TJ (DeFalco) a ton of balls because they are experienced and capable. It was building the trust with a lot of new guy on this year’s starting lineup with Josh (Tuaniga); building it in practice and trusting it matches and allowing us to get to the point where we can have balance in our offense in big games at the end of the season. So I am very proud of that. It was a little bit more challenging and rightfully so. As that gap gets a little bit bigger between TJ and Kyle and a young group coming in behind them, the natural tendency is to rely on them a little more. I thought Josh’s development and maturity and willingness to trust the process is the reason that he was able to run his offense the way he did all season long and the reason why the numbers are as balanced as they are.
TJ and Kyle had great seasons, both offensively and serving the ball. How important where they in driving the ship, while everyone else got on board?
They are huge pieces and we knew they were when we recruited them. You have a blue print of how you want your team to look and how you hope it will look and when we recruited TJ and Kyle and Josh, obviously we thought that they would be a big part of our team for the four years that they were going to be here.
There have been moments this season where we did have to lean on them a little bit more. There is experience there and there is confidence and there is that feeling of Josh knowing that if he really needs something he can go to either guy. That makes the other guys on the team better. It makes us better in practice to have to play against those guys, to watch them train and see how they do things, to listen to them, to watch video with them. I think they are a wonderful leadership group, more by example than anything else.
Let’s talk a little about the NCAA Tournament. You don’t know who you are going to play, especially with a bye to the semifinals. Do you have a mini-scouting report going on everybody and maybe concentrate a little bit more on the teams on your side of the bracket? How do you prepare your team with so many unknowns?
It is two-fold. You will have the other side of the bracket that you are working on as well as your side. You have scouting reports done because you want to make sure you are working on things in training that also might apply in different matchups. So, right now is a tough time for the staff. It is a grind time to get it all done, but it is our job to make sure that we have all of the scouting reports done and ready to go so we can use them for our training block as well as when we get to see whichever team we are going to see. It is an exciting time for our staff too. It is a little different than regular season because you are preparing for a lot more but at the same time, it is an exciting time because you are preparing for the big tournament.
Everybody has to have a system in place of how they are preparing for multiple matches and multiple opponents. The big thing is here is making sure we are not spending too much time on the things that we can’t control and really staying in the routine of the things that we can control and worrying about making sure we develop our offense and making sure we are developing our serving and passing and squeezing out one or two percent more for the run.
Do you even address opponents during the first week of practice after the selection show since you don’t even know who that is going to be and then maybe pick it on Monday when you have it down to just two teams to prepare for?
I think in this situation it is always a good idea to address them and to talk about some basic tendencies and themes and I think it is ok to see some of the tendencies a few of the hitters and servers might have so you can use it as a reference when you are working on things in the gym. It just gives the guys a little more time to take it in, to digest it and let it marinate a little bit and not make it such a rush of information come the beginning of next week. I think that is the beautiful thing about not playing in that play-in game or on Tuesday night is that you have the ability to do that. You might as well use that to your advantage.
If you look at critics of the bracket this year, it could end up being you taking on a fellow Big West opponent and BYU taking on a fellow MPSF opponent, with the conferences then facing off in the title match. Do you like how that hashes out?
I haven’t even thought about it in that way. To me, every single year that I have been a part of men’s volleyball there has been a discussion about how the bracket could be different and who could be in and we have been on both sides of that. Maybe it is just the older I get or the longer I do it, we have zero control on that part of the game, so I put zero effort into thinking about that part of the game.