Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
In the combined world of NCAA Division I-II men’s volleyball, Division I opponents have made the nonconference trek to Wilson previously.
But no foe possessed the stature and cache of Friday’s challenge, when No. 1-ranked Long Beach State, the defending national champion, stepped through the doors of Wilson Gym.
The Bulldogs, who used the automatic bid from Conference Carolinas to make an NCAA tournament appearance two years ago, competed admirably, and held respectable leads in the first and third sets. But the talent disparity was evident, as the 49ers of the Big West Conference hit at a torrid .434 clip to grind to a 25-17, 25-18, 25-21 victory.
Long Beach State, which concluded a two-game stretch in two nights in North Carolina, remained unbeaten through five matches and has won 33 of its last 34 matches. Barton, playing out of Conference Carolinas, dropped to 0-2.
“Any time you play a great team, it’s going to raise your level of focus,” Barton head coach Jeff Lennox said. “Them coming here, which was great and well appreciated, our guys knew we still needed to play our level of volleyball and not let how good or whatever they do on the other side of the net affect us, except for staying more engaged and more focused.”
Boasting the last two national players of the year in T.J. DeFalco and Josh Tuaniga, Long Beach State put down 47 kills over the three-set span. DeFalco had 14, with Louis Richard adding 11. Tuaniga, from his setter’s position, had 40 assists and was a threat to join the attack. Passes and sets sent below the attack line in system were candidates to be slammed to the floor with vicious authority.
“They move the ball so quick on the court, it’s so hard to guess,” Barton junior Angelos Mandilaris said. “The blockers and defenders, you stop for one second, and the point is over. I’ve never had the experience to play against such a good team before. Hopefully we can learn something from them and become better players — and hopefully, play like them in the future.”
Barton got off to a promising start on its home floor, owning leads of 4-1 and 7-3 in the opening set as Long Beach State slogged through half of its 14 service errors. But that was offset by a .550 attack percentage from the 49ers in the first set as the lead dissipated. The Bulldogs, who hit .123 as a team, were tied for the final time at 12, and with the Bulldogs trailing 18-16, saw Long Beach State end the set on a 7-1 run. Richard’s kill gave the 49ers a 1-0 lead.
Barton did help its cause with proficiency in serve-receive, limiting Long Beach State to three errors. Conversely, the 49ers’ brute force offensively limited the Bulldogs to just 19 digs.
“After (George) Mason, that was our first match and getting that out of the way, I knew our serve and pass was going to be a little rusty there,” Lennox said. “We spent all week focusing on that, and I think our guys did a good job understanding the importance of that and being locked in on every server. I thought it was exceptional.”
A slow start in the second set left Barton down 7-0. However, the Bulldogs scratched together a 7-1 run on the back of freshman Adrian Iglesias, whose kill trimmed the margin to 15-12 and forced a timeout from the 49ers. Yet the Bulldogs could get no closer, losing the next three points out of the timeout and falling down two sets on an ace from Kyle Ensing.
While Lennox hoped to hold the 49ers under .400 on the attack, he wasn’t surprised to see 47 kills from the opposition. But 27 kills, led by 11 from Iglesias, left Barton with its .123 percentage — a figure Lennox expected to see “a lot higher.”
The Bulldogs reached the 20-point plateau in the third and final set, leading as late as 14-13. However, the points were tougher to come by in the waning stages of the set, and free balls from Long Beach State weren’t converted into kills. An apparent four-hit call went undetected, and a 10-6 Barton lead was turned into a 15-14 lead for the 49ers. Barton got as close as 21-19 late, but Ensing’s kill capped off the sweep for the 49ers.
“There’s a lot of experience on the court for us, which can slow some things down and just start worrying about executing instead of being caught up in the emotion of the moment,” Long Beach State head coach and former U.S. Olympic Team coach Alan Kanipe said. “Whether it be a couple point stretch or not. I thought Barton pressured us and I thought the response was good.”
With the Big West adding men’s volleyball in 2016, it allowed Long Beach State to move its program from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation to join its other sports. As such, less conference matches were on the schedule, opening the door for the 49ers to play more nonconference opponents, and as a result, travel to unfamiliar opponents. An obligation, as the defending national champion, isn’t lost on the 49ers in the effort to grow the sport.
“I also think there’s a huge value for us, getting out to some gyms that we’ve never played at,” Kanipe said. “It makes it a little more uncomfortable for us, and hopefully, just a little bit of this helps Barton and Mount Olive to have some West Coast teams come through.”
Indeed, Barton learned a tough lesson in its grittiness. Some of the points it may have won in Conference Carolinas with the same level of play were simply repelled by the 49ers, and finished with a punishing kill.
“Keep working harder,” Mandilaris said. “And don’t expect points. Because sometimes we thing, ‘OK, they may miss the ball’ or something. But we have to be able to give 100 percent every point, no matter what happens on the other side of the net.”