Fresno State men’s volleyball coach Brian Tsukimura and the team were faced with a grand dilemma throughout the season.
Fresno State captured its third national championship in nine years after its 25-21, 25-16 straight-set win against UC Santa Barbara in the Collegiate Club Volleyball Championships final Saturday in Dallas.
But throughout their journey, players were quitting – leaving the team due to a number of reasons.
Part of it could’ve been the late practices. The team’s typical practice schedule would vary from around 8:30 to 12:30 at night, said fifth-year senior Hunter Knight.
“When everything else is basically over, then we go in and practice,” Tsukimura said.
The time commitment, the fees, the practices, the inconvenient scheduling – all that might’ve had its part in depleting a 16-man roster to half its size when all was said and done.
Tsukimura, a biology professor at Fresno State, saw the problem. He looked to chemistry to fix it.
“We kept shrinking as the season went on. Every time we shrank, it was an unofficial call out for everybody to step up,” Tsukimura said. “Where the kids get credit is they actually did step up. They stepped up to the national championship.”
Fresno State (29-6) finished the championship tournament 9-1. The team swept all four of its opponents on Saturday – Cal, UC Irvine, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara. Fresno State’s only loss of the tournament was a three-set loss to Purdue in the opening round.
It was on that first day in which Fresno State – the No. 4 seed that everyone expected to roll through the first-round competition – squeaked by Cal State Fullerton and Cincinnati, both in three sets.
Fresno State hadn’t competed in about a month.
Said Knight, Fresno State’s go-to offensive weapon this season: “After our team meeting that night, our coach broke us down and gave us a good tongue lashing. And we got together as a team.
“A totally different team came to play for the rest of the tournament after that.”
Fresno State dominated the rest of the tournament.
But it wasn’t an easy road to the national championship – especially during the first half of the season, when a bulk of the players quit, and the team was riddled with injuries at various times.
Knight was out. Chris Hughes, the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, was out. And so was Taylor Dildine, adding woe to the dwindling numbers.
“With each person that quit, it was really frustrating,” Knight said. “Two of the guys that quit were two of my best friends that had been playing for multiple years.
“It was a little discouraging to see some of those guys quit. It made me think that our chances of winning were going down, honestly.”
But Fresno State had the pieces to the puzzle. The team had reached the 168-team tournament’s Sweet 16 the previous two years.
Knight, Hughes and Jordan Burriss – Fresno State’s pivotal setter who recorded 251 assists during the tournament – were all part of the 2009 national championship team.
And then the chemistry kicked in.
“At that point, when everyone quit, it just kind helped bring us closer and closer together,” Knight said.
“Well, who’s gonna drop off next? Whoever’s left, we’re the survivors. We’re the tough ones who were able to stick it out.
“And it kind of just galvanized us. It brought us closer together. We’re the ones that have stuck it out and we’re going to make the best out of what we have left.”
Knight is one player who plans to pursue playing the sport at the professional level – a feat several seniors from the 2009 national championship team achieved.
And as for the club program’s future?
Tsukimura hopes to fill holes at the middle blocker and at setter – a position vacated by Burriss, who will graduate this spring.
The club sports program helps coordinate the City/County All-Star high school volleyball game in June – an annual match that features the Central Valley’s top performers.
Tsukimura said he’ll reach out to potential incoming Fresno State freshmen at the game – a usual routine of his.
“It’s all about the players who want to be there,” Tsukimura said.
Knight has high aspirations for the future of the program, which also won national championships in 2004 and 2009.
“Hopefully we can get a scholarship team someday,” Knight said.
“That would be awesome. But until that happens, I think Fresno State is going to have a good club volleyball program for years to come.”