Pepperdine volleyball moves on to Final Four

Pepperdine's Jonathan Winder, Andy Hein and Sean Rooney jump for the ball in front of the cheering fans at Firestone Fieldhouse. Photo by Marin Folb

Most men who grow to be 6 feet 2 inches tall are not often derided for their height, but senior setter John Mayer would have told you differently Saturday night at Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse, the site of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s men’s volleyball championship match between Pepperdine and Long Beach State.

Of the 2,107 in attendance, a small but raucous group of Long Beach State supporters tried to get into Mayer’s head early, chanting, “6-foot-2” every time the Thousand Oaks native made a mistake. Surrounded by guys like 6-foot, 9-inch outside hitter Sean Rooney and 6-foot, 11-inch middle blocker Andy Hein, Mayer may be on the short side by volleyball standards, but he let his big-time performance on the court-10 kills and 2 digs-do the talking as he and the Waves swept the 49ers, 3-0 for the MPSF title.

“I think there has always been a little something between us and Long Beach,” Mayer said. “They are a semi-local team and we know their guys a lot so there has always been a little rivalry, but any time you beat a good team, it feels good.” Pepperdine’s last loss came to Long Beach State (22-10) on March 31 in Long Beach. Pepperdine (23-2) has won seven straight since then and claimed the nation’s No. 1 ranking in the process. Saturday’s win gave Pepperdine an automatic bid to the Final Four beginning May 5 at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood.

“[Long Beach State] was probably coming in as the hottest team,” Mayer said. “In our league there are about six or seven teams that are really tough, and I knew whoever was hot at the end [of the season] was going to be tough to beat.”

Pepperdine had a tougher time with Long Beach State than the 3-0 sweep would indicate. Down by as much as 10-16 in game one, Pepperdine was being outplayed by the 49ers in the early-going, until a kill by Andy Hein-10 kills and 3 digs on the night-sparked a five-point rally to make it a 15-16 game. Long Beach State maintained a close lead until an attack error by the 49ers’ Robert Tarr tied the game at 26. Pepperdine took the lead at 29-28 on another Tarr attack error and never let go en route to a 31-29 game one victory.

“In game one we got down early,” senior outside hitter Sean Rooney said. “Both teams were playing tough. I thought that was a really good volleyball game all around. [We started gaining momentum] once our blocks started clicking. Like other games this year, as soon as we got some rhythm and some ball-control we started to take advantage.”

Parlaying their energy from the game one victory, the Waves dominated in game two as they never trailed and went on to win by a 30-21 margin. Rooney-a game-high 16 kills-led off the game with a service ace and wore his emotions on his sleeve throughout, pumping his fist after significant Pepperdine points. The Pepperdine crowd chanted, “MVP” in homage to the senior, who played his final game for the Waves at Firestone Fieldhouse.

Game three was another nail-biter for the Waves. After taking the lead at 3-4, Long Beach State led throughout most of the game. Down 16-19 midway through the game, Pepperdine won an extended rally with a punishing Rooney kill to make it a 17-19 game. It being pivotal point in the game, the crowd erupted in support of the fist-pumping Rooney. The “MVP” chants started again, providing Rooney and the Waves with the momentum they needed to win the match. Pepperdine tied the game at 22 and took the lead at 26-25. Fittingly, the Waves ended the match with a Rooney kill, winning the third and final game 30-27.

Final Four play begins on Friday with Penn State taking on UCLA at 7 p.m. The Waves will face Ohio State at 9 p.m. The winners will play for the national championship on May 7 in Westwood at 8 p.m.