After a grueling five-set battle, the University of Hawaiʻi men’s volleyball team took down top-ranked Long Beach State to claim its first Big West Conference Championship.
“We’re always going to remember this game,” senior outside hitter Stijn van Tilburg said. “I just wanted this win so bad, playing in front of my family and all these fans.”
It took three matches and 15 sets, but Hawaiʻi (26-2) managed to beat the 49ers when it counted. In front of a sold-out crowd of 10,300, the Rainbow Warriors won a hard-fought five-set victory 25-15, 25-23, 22-25, 20-25 and 15-8.
van Tilburg, who finished with a game-high 25 kills, was named the Big West Conference Tournament MVP. Redshirt junior outside hitter Colton Cowell finished with a game-high 12 digs while also chipping in 18 kills.
“It was sheer will,” head coach Charlie Wade said of van Tilburg. “He has the heart of a warrior. He played hard at the end, when I knew he was running on fumes. To go through this kind of stuff takes a lot of mental strength and character. He showed that tonight.”
LBSU drew first blood in the set one with a kill by Kyle Ensing, but its early lead was erased with a quick 13-7 Hawai’i run. The 49ers tried to cut into the lead, but never managed to come within five points. The ‘Bows ended the set with an efficient 9-4 run to claim a 25-15 set win. van Tilburg led the way with a set-high five kills. The Rainbow Warriors finished with four and a half team blocks while Long Beach State tallied just one.
Set two was an intense back-and-forth shootout between the two teams. Hawai’i took the first point with a kill by van Tilburg, but the ‘Bows were unable to pull away as LBSU matched them point for point. Long Beach State eventually pried the lead away from Hawai’i with a quick 3-0 run. Trailing 20-19 late in the set, the ‘Bows went on a clutch 6-3 run to take a 25-23 set victory. van Tilburg led the team with five kills in the set, while Gage Worsley had a set-high four digs.
Game three brought another closely contested shootout. Long Beach State began the game with a quick 3-0 lead, but UH responded with a 7-4 run to tie the game. The teams once again matched each other shot for shot during the set. As the scores entered the 20s, the ‘Bows tried desperately to cut the lead down, but each stretch run was matched by Long Beach State. The 49ers claimed the last two kills of the set to preserve a 25-22 set victory and keep the game alive. van Tilburg led the Rainbow Warriors with his third straight five-kill set.
Trying to stay afloat, Long Beach State were looking to start fast. They took the first point of set four with a kill by Ensing. Hawai’i quickly retook the lead with two consecutive kills. The teams entered yet another shootout. Late in the set, the 49ers began to pull away with a 6-1 run. The ‘Bows responded with a 3-0 run of their own, but LBSU took control of the match with a 6-2 run, including the final three points. The 25-20 Long Beach State victory sent the match to its fifth set.
After LBSU’s furious two set comeback, the ‘Bows had one last chance to take the crown. van Tilburg got the set going with two straight kills to take the early lead. Long Beach State tried to chip in points of their own, but they couldn’t keep up with the Rainbow Warriors. Riding the momentum and to the thunderous roar of the home crowd, Hawai’i finished the match with a dominant 6-2 run to claim its first ever conference championship.
“We said all year that a match was going to be played at Stan Sheriff Center to get us into the NCAA Tournament,” Wade said. “We have to be in it and we have to win it. We accomplished that tonight.”
With the victory, the ‘Bows have earned an automatic berth in the upcoming NCAA Tournament in Long Beach.