UCLA’s Cooper Robinson hits the roll over the UCI block/Jim Wolf photo

LONG BEACH, California — If it’s filled to capacity Saturday when top-seeded UCLA plays No. 2 Long Beach State for the NCAA’s National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship, the crowd in The Walter Pyramid will have about 10 times the population of Meunster, Saskatchewan.

But Skyler Varga, the 6-foot-7 Long Beach sophomore opposite from that tiny Canadian village, can’t wait.

More on him and Meunster in a bit.

The two top teams in the nation, who split their regular-season non-conference matches, play at 2 p.m. Pacific, 5 p.m. Eastern, on ESPN. 

Yes, the first set and maybe part of the second will be going up against NCAA beach volleyball on ESPN2 and against the Kentucky Derby on NBC, but it’s a big TV step up for the men’s game. If what we expect will be a big-time battle ensues, new viewers who catch the latter stages of the match will be glad they did.

UCLA (25-5), the MPSF regular-season champion, lost in the MPSF final to Grand Canyon. The Bruins opened NCAA play Tuesday with a sweep of Fort Valley State and then Thursday came away with a 22-25, 25-20, 25-16, 18-25, 15-12 victory over fourth-seeded UCI Irvine in the semifinals.

Long Beach State (27-2), the Big West regular-season and tournament champion, opened with a sweep of Belmont Abbey before having to pull off a 24-26, 26-28, 25-18, 25-23, 15-10 semifinals reverse sweep of Grand Canyon.

“We know it’s going to be a great match against a great team,” UCLA coach John Speraw said, “and it’s going to be in a very loud, hostile environment.”

History, recent and way back

UCLA and Long Beach  played twice in the regular season. 

Long Beach won 25-22, 21-25, 25-27, 19-25 on February 9 in The Pyramid to improve to 10-0 at the time. Sotiris Siapanis led Long Beach with 18 kills, Varga had 15, Clarke Godbold 12 and Simon Torwie had three kills and eight blocks. UCLA’s Ido David had 15 kills and Merrick McKenry had 11 to go with six blocks.

The next night, at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, the Bruins won 29-27, 27-29, 25-19, 25-20 as Long Beach took its first loss. Four Bruins had 10 or more kills, 16 by Grant Sloane. But Sloane injured his ankle in warmups Thursday, missed the UCI match and is most likely not going to play Saturday. Alex Knight had 14 kills and McHenry and Cooper Robinson 10 each. Godbold led Long Beach with 15 kills and Siapanis had 13.

“That was a good series for us,” Long Beach libero Mason Briggs, who has 125,000 Instagram followers, said. “… It helped propel us into the rest of the season.”

Long Beach State won its first title in 1991 and didn’t win again until it went back to back in 2018 and 2019. The Beach was ranked No. 1 when the season was canceled in 2020. Coach Alan Knipe’s team lost in the 2022 final to Hawai’i. Knipe won the title as a player at Long Beach in 1991 when the coach was Ray Ratelle.

UCLA, which won it all last year for the first time since 2006, previously won titles under Al Scates in 1970-72, ’74, ’75, ’76, ’79, 1981-84, 1987, 1989, 1993, 1995, ’96, ’98, 2000 and 2006. UCLA coach John Speraw, who played on the 1993 and ’95 teams, won as the coach at UC Irvine in 2009 and 2012 before leading the Bruins to the championship last year.

This is the first time in NCAA history that the final has two coaches who have won it all at their alma maters as a player and as a head coach. What’s more, Knipe was the USA Olympic coach in 2012 and Speraw is starting his third Olympic quad since taking over in 2016.

And Saturday marks 50 years to the day (May 4, 1974) when UCLA became the first road team to ever win a NCAA title match (UCLA won at home in 1970, 1971 and San Diego State at home in 1973). The Bruins rallied from being down 6-1 in set five to upset UC Santa Barbara in Rob Gymnasium with Frank Gifford as the ABC play-by-play announcer.

Meunster, eh

Skyler Varga celebrates a point against GCU/John Fajardo photo

Meunster, population 400, is about 75 miles west of Saskatoon. the next “biggest” city.

“Five streets, no stoplights. Last week, I was having a talk with one of our teammates and there’s like nine total shops on Railroad Street. Yeah, there’s not much to it.”

Actually, we looked it up and it’s Railway Street, but, for perspective, Meunster is about 867 northwest of Minneapolis and 459 miles east of Calgary, Alberta.

It’s tiny and remote.

Were there enough people to play volleyball?

“Almost. Enough people to form a high school team. My club team (Meunster Volleyball Club) was people who were from around that area and joined. You kind of had to ask people to play volleyball. Any sport in that area you needed everybody from each sport to join your team in order to play. It’s a pretty different experience than places out here.”

His older brothers, Devin and Lyndon, both played volleyball at the Canadian college University of Alberta Augustana, where Devin is now the head coach, and Lyndon plays professionally, this past season in Germany. That area is also the home of Gavin Schmitt, the Canadian great who is from Saskatoon and had a long pro career, including the 2016 Olympics.

Varga played a season at the University of Saskatchewan before transferring to Long Beach. But his first season in 2023 lasted just two matches before he was lost to a knee injury.

Thursday, Varga had a career-high 20 kills against GCU and had an ace, five blocks and eight digs. He’s second to Siapanis on the team with 272 kills (2.99/set) and is second to Torwie in blocks with 82.

The ties that bind

UCLA senior outside Alex Knight is from Culver City, California, and played at Pacifica Christian High School. He grew up playing with Long Beach senior outside Clarke Godbold, who is from San Pedro and played at Palos Verdes Peninsula High.

Knight has also been a teammate of Long Beach’s Briggs on USA national teams. 

“It’s super fun how long we’ve played against each other and with each other,” Knight said. “This is a super cool chance to play each other one more time in the United States. We’re looking forward to it and it’s going to be a fun matchup and it always has been a fun matchup.”

There are plenty of other ties between the two teams, but for the Bruins, UCLA sophomore Cooper Robinson and freshman middle Spencer Graves are both from Pacific Palisades and went to Loyola High School.

And, of course, Speraw and Knipe have coached against each other so many times they can’t imagine and Speraw was one of Knipe’s USA assistants in London for the 2012 Olympics.


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