Saturday night’s regular season finale between the third-ranked CSUN Matador men’s volleyball team and the fourth-ranked Long Beach State 49ers at the Matadome had a lot riding on it.
After beating UC San Diego on Friday night, the Matadors needed a win to clinch a share of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation title and with it, the second seed in the upcoming MPSF playoffs and possibly an at-large bid into the final four should it come up short in the tournament. Long Beach also wanted a share of the title, but more importantly, it wanted a week off and home court advantage throughout the MPSF playoffs.
The later prevailed, however, as Long Beach showed a lot of poise, particularly in games one and three, where they rallied from sizable deficits to win and in the process, complete a three-game sweep of Northridge by scores of 32-30, 30-27 and 30-26.
“It was disappointing,” said head coach Jeff Campbell. “I know our team tried hard, but (Long Beach) basically outplayed us.”
Long Beach (23-5) finishes tied for first place with BYU. Both teams ended 18-4 in conference play, but the 49ers get the No. 1 seed for the MPSF tournament because they swept the season series from the Cougars. Long Beach gets a bye all the way into the MPSF semifinals, which they will host in about two weeks. CSUN finishes in third place with a record of 22-6, 17-5 in conference play, and will host a quarterfinal match on Saturday night.
Freshman middle blocker Cody Loe swung for a team-high 11 kills and junior outside hitter Eric Vance swung for 10 kills. Two seniors playing their final regular season match at the Matadome, setter Travis Bluemling and outside hitter Isaac Kneubuhl also had good games. Kneubuhl had nine kills and Bluemling had 36 assists.
Long Beach got a big game from sophomore opposite Dean Bittner, who swung for a match-high 22 kills and senior outside hitter Paul Lotman swung for 10 kills. Freshman setter Mike Lipsich had 42 assists and junior libero Dustin Watten had 10 digs.
Trailing two games to none, CSUN fought desperately to avoid the sweep in game three. Tied at nine, sophomore outside hitter Mike Gaudino and Loe turned back a 49er attack and a ball hit by Bittner went long, giving CSUN a two-point advantage. CSUN led 13-12 when they heated up, winning the next three sets to force a 49er timeout. The Matadors won two more sets to take an 18-12 lead, but Long Beach refused to go away. Bittner found openings in the Northridge backline for a pair of kills, then after Gaudino swung a ball off a pair of 49er blockers for a point, Long Beach made its move, winning the next three sets to get within two points and force a Matador timeout. Gaudino stopped the momentum with another kill off a Long Beach block, but that didn’t stop the 49ers from winning the next three sets to tie at 20 and force another CSUN timeout.
Long Beach took the lead when Bittner, Lotman and senior middle blocker Flethcer Anderson returned a Gaudino attack on the set following the break. Long Beach then traded the next eight sets, but Northridge got the ball back on a serve error and Gaudino blocked another Long Beach attack to give CSUN a 26-25 lead, forcing a 49er timeout. Long Beach tied the game following the break and on the next set, Lotman sent a ball long and out of bounds. The call was overturned, however, as it was ruled the ball glanced off a Matador blocker before it went out. The call appeared to rattle CSUN, as consecutive hitting errors put Long Beach at match point and a Lotman kill ended the match and sent Long Beach’s fans into a frenzy.
Game one was equally agonizing. After surrendering the first three sets, Northridge got into the match and stayed toe-to-toe with Long Beach. CSUN took its first lead at 15-14 when Kneubuhl, Gaudino and sophomore middle blocker Kevin McKniff teamed to deny a 49er attack. The Matador lead peaked at two, the first time at 22-20 after Kneubuhl swung for kills on consecutive sets. Northridge led 24-22 until Long Beach won three straight to take the lead and force a Matador timeout. Northridge responded by winning the next two sets to retake the lead. Long Beach tied the game on a service error and after trading the next two points, Loe and Gaudino went off Long Beach blockers on consecutive sets to put CSUN at game point.
Long Beach, however, got the ball back on a service error and on the next set, Klipsich sent back Kneubuhl’s attack to force sudden death. Kneubuhl redeemed himself with a kill to again put Northridge at game point, but Lotman sent a ball toward CSUN’s back line for a kill and Anderson aced on the ensuing serve to give Long Beach the game point advantage and force a Matador timeout. Game one ended when Northridge was called for a net violation.
“We didn’t make plays down the stretch,” Kneubuhl said.
Game two saw Long Beach jump out to an 8-5 lead. Northridge came back with four of the next five sets to tie at nine. The 49ers, however, won the next three sets and after CSUN won two of the next three, Long Beach won consecutive sets to lead 15-11 and force a CSUN timeout. The 49ers were just getting started, as they took a 20-14 lead and led 23-16 when Northridge started to get hot, winning the next four sets to force a Long Beach timeout. The 49ers however didn’t crack, and got to game point at 29-24 and it was CSUN’s turn to stave off defeat, winning the next three sets to force a 49er timeout. But, Long Beach wrapped up the game on a Lotman kill.
“Long Beach came out ready to play and they played well the whole time,” Bluemling said.
Seniors Bluemling and Kneubuhl were honored for their contributions to the Northridge program prior to the match. Both admit that Saturday’s loss dampened things a little bit, but vow to come back strong in a week.
“I’ve had an amazing career here,” Bluemling said. “I’ve had a lot of fun, met a lot of great people, and even though we lost, we still play here (next) Saturday, so I’m not worried.”
“I wish we would’ve won, Kneubuhl said. “It would’ve been a nice fairy tale ending, but we’ll bounce back.”
Campbell also commended Bluemling and Kneubuhl for their hard work in bringing the program to where it stands right now.
“Isaac and Travis have been great,” Campbell said. “They’re the reason why this is our best season ever.”
On Friday night at the Matadome, the results were quite different.
CSUN wasn’t taking the UC San Diego Tritons lightly. After all, the Tritons had swept defending national champion UC Irvine and also beat UCLA during the season. In fact, back on March 1, the Tritons had managed to take a game from the Matadors in their meeting in La Jolla before they eventually lost in four games, not to mention it seemed like the perfect trap game, with the all-important match against the fourth-ranked Long Beach State 49ers looming the next day.
“We knew they were capable of playing well,” Campbell said of UC San Diego. “We knew we had to come out and play at a high level.”
Northridge did just that, sweeping UC San Diego at the Matadome by scores of 30-21, 30-19 and 30-24.
“We did alright, took care of business,” McKniff said.
Kneubuhl swung for a team-high 13 kills for the Matadors and Vance, Gaudino and Loe swung for 10 kills apiece. Bluemling had 44 set assists.
Freshman setter Phil Bannan had 24 assists for San Diego and freshman outside hitter Jason Spangler had team-high nine kills for the Tritons.
In game one CSUN (22-5, 17-4) jumped out to a 3-0 lead. Northridge stretched its lead to 7-3 until San Diego heated up, winning five of the next six sets to tie at eight. Both teams traded the next four sets to remain even, but Loe went off a San Diego block and Kneubuhl swung a ball off Fritsch for a kill. Northridge gave the ball back on a service error, but won four of the next five sets to take a 16-12 lead. The Matadors led 19-15, the Tritons won consecutive sets, but Vance nearly put a hole in the Matadome floor on the ensuing set, then jumpe
d from the back row for another kill on the next set. CSUN won two more sets to force a Triton timeout. A Bannan kill stopped the run, but Northridge simply started another one, winning the next three sets to force another UC San Diego timeout, and the Tritons never threatened again.
Game two saw UC San Diego (10-18, 6-15) take an early lead at 7-6. Loe swung a ball off a Triton block to tie the game, San Diego got the ball back on a service error, but Kneubuhl pinned junior opposite Adam Levins on the next set and Northridge followed by winning the next three sets to take an 11-8 lead and force a UC San Diego timeout. Northridge continued to roll in game two, as their lead reached eight points at 20-12, nine at 27-18 and double-digits on the next set on a service ace by Gaudino and Northridge cruised from there.
In game three, San Diego trailed 17-15, but CSUN answered by winning the next three sets to force a San Diego timeout. Northridge then won three of the next four sets to lead 23-16, but the Tritons won the next four sets to force a CSUN timeout. Vance swung a ball off a San Diego block for a kill and Kneubuhl returned a ball swung by Hardy on the next set. The Tritons though won consecutive sets to again get within three points. The two teams traded the next four sets, then Gaudino swung a ball to San Diego’s back area that stayed inbounds, Vance swung a ball off a San Diego block, and the match ended when an attack by Fritsch went long and out of bounds.
Northridge hit .506 in the match and their side out percentages in the three games never slid below 70 percent. CSUN sided out at an 81 percent clip in game one, 78 percent in game two and 75 percent in game three. San Diego’s offense was hardly heard from in the match, especially in game two. The Tritons hit .176 on Friday night and hit for a negative .032 in game two.