LBCC’s five set loss to the San Diego Mesa Olympians was everything that I love about sports in this city. I don’t mean the loss, of course—but in 24 years of living in Long Beach and watching sports, I can’t think of five evenings that surprised me more than the Vikings/Olympians match on Wednesday. The game was played in the little gym on the LBCC Liberal Arts campus: the stands were filled, and raucous, an atmosphere head coach Suzie Witmer says they’ve had every home game so far this season. The players were talented, passionate, and more, they actually cared about the game, and each other. They cared visibly, unconsciously, and naturally—the way you want to see an athlete, on any level, care about what they’re doing.
Of course, I wouldn’t have had such a good time if the game itself hadn’t been something special. The Vikings were 7-1 coming into the match, and I knew they were good. I also knew they were playing a team in the Olympians who were just as talented—Mesa eliminated the Vikings from the playoffs last year. But the first set opened with the Vikings looking dominant, sprinting out to an early lead before it tightened mid-set, staying that way until coach Witmer called her final timeout at 23-23. After that, the Olympians came out stomping, and won the first set 26-24.
The second set was…less competitive, as the Vikings lost 25-11, and looked like they weren’t in the game. A lesser crowd would have walked out. But these fans (which included a healthy smattering of basketball and football team members) didn’t go anywhere. As a result, they were there to watch one of the closest sets I’ve ever seen, with ties at points 5, 6, 7, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 21, 22, and 23. After that, the Vikings pulled away, winning 25-23. The fourth set they won just as easily as they’d lost the second, by a score of 25-12, setting the stage for what Long Beach State head coach Brian Gimmillaro calls “Sudden Death”: the fifth set, where anything can happen and a win is just a blink of an eye from being a loss.
The Vikings jumped out to an early lead, before the score knotted at 5. They pulled away again, until the Olympians caught them at 8. They tied again at 12, and then Mesa put them away, with a 3-0 run to end the game and the match, at 15-12.
But those are just numbers—they don’t do the crowd, the team, or the evening justice. Afterward, the players looked emotionally spent. After coach Witmer talked to them in the locker room, she came out, took one look around, and said, “That was tough.” After acknowledging that it had been a hell of a show, she got to the heart of the matter. “We showed up way too late in that match,” she said. I commented about the crowd, and mentioned that they seemed to be filling the gym up. “Yeah,” she said. “This is our gym; we like it in there.” We like it too, coach—the good news, readers, is that this fiery team (outstanding players on the night were Lacy Baker with 18 kills and 7 digs, and Maricris Lapaix—who has a cannon for a swinging arm—with 15 kills and 4 digs) will be playing in their gym every Wednesday at 6 or 7pm from now until Thanksgiving week. The even better news is you can walk in for free.
Whaddya say, Long Beach? Let’s make a habit of this—get out and support your Vikings on Hump Day. If a loss can feel that good, imagine what the wins will be like.