LBSU’s TJ DeFalco and his impossible pursuit of perfection

TJ DeFalco only wants one thing. It’s a simple word and an impossible goal: perfection.

“I want to do things perfectly, I feel like I have to do things perfectly,” he said. “I want to beat teams 25-0 every set and I’m never going to get over that we can’t do it.”

That intense drive is his greatest gift and likely his biggest weakness. It’s taken him to heights that few other NCAA players in any sport have reached. He was compared to Karch Kiraly while still a youth volleyball player, set high school records after going two years with no losses, made the USA National Team at 18, and this week, became just the third four-time First Team All-American in the history of his sport.

Named the 2019 National Player of the Year on Wednesday—he was awarded the same honor in 2017—DeFalco is trying to add one more national championship ring to his collection this week, as Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid plays host to the NCAA Final Four. DeFalco’s Long Beach State, defending national champions, faces Pepperdine at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, and will possibly meet Hawaii in the national championship on Saturday at 5 p.m. Both matches are already sold out, and it’s a good thing; this might be the last chance to see one of the best athletes in the history of the city playing in town.

“TJ is driven purely by a desire to be perfect at a game that doesn’t allow you to be perfect,” said LBSU coach Alan Knipe. “Just trying to find a little bit more and a little bit more. He’s incredibly special.”

‘Next great thing’

While a relentless pursuit of excellency might make for an outstanding athlete, it’s not the easiest trait for a young kid. But, according to DeFalco’s father, Torey, his son has always had that kind of personality.

“Even when he was a young, young boy, if his mom got frustrated with him while he’s rolling his eyes or whatever, I’d say this is a tremendous leader in training right here, he’s just really, really raw,” said Torey.

DeFalco is one of seven kids and grew up homeschooled on a Missouri farm until the family moved to Southern California. There’s a reason Torey was able to see through his son’s occasional bursts of temper or frustrations.

“A lot of my personality derives from my father,” said TJ. “We have the same brain type. He wants to do everything perfectly. If he was washing dishes he wants to find out how to do it the most efficiently, he wanted to feed the cows the fastest.”

Sports became the perfect outlet for TJ; he grinded hard to become an excellent youth golfer, before falling in love with volleyball. DeFalco attended Huntington Beach High, where he and Long Beach State teammate Josh Tuaniga won three straight CIF Southern Section championships, including two 40-0 seasons their junior and senior years.

The hype began to build around him as a young player as he began drawing comparisons to the best American volleyball players in history, including Kiraly. Even as that praise and those expectations accumulated, DeFalco didn’t let them inside, instead, he’d be on the court cursing at himself after an error, or barking into his hands after a missed serve. It was an attitude that could rub fans the wrong way, a heralded player storming around the court furiously.

Despite all evidence and opinions to the contrary, TJ DeFalco still believes the perfect game is possible. Photo by Stephen Dachman.

“I’ve mellowed over the years, and I think I’ve been able to teach him some of the things I’ve learned so that he doesn’t come off as an asshole,” said Torey.

DeFalco was the top college recruit in the country, and what Knipe saw wasn’t a player who was a bad teammate or a negative personality, it was a player who was fighting to make sure he didn’t succumb to other people’s expectations or praise.

“Since he’s been very young he’s had to deal with very high expectations and that’s not easy when you’re a kid,” said Knipe. “You have no time off, everyone is anointing you as this next great thing. The best thing about TJ is nobody could ever put an expectation on him that’s even in the realm of his expectations for himself.”

‘The right thing’

After graduating high school and spending a summer with the USA National Team, DeFalco arrived as a freshman at Long Beach State in an awkward position. He was clearly the most talented player on the floor in most matches but was also a newcomer to the team and the NCAA. He struggled with figuring out how to lead, especially with players who were older and more experienced.

Even though Long Beach State had exceptional success in his freshman and sophomore campaigns—reaching the Final Four as DeFalco was named first-team All-American—they felt like disappointments.

“He wasn’t developed as a leader when we were younger,” said Tuaniga. “Guys had a hard time figuring him out.”

Tuaniga and Knipe both say they’ve been blown away by how much DeFalco has improved as a leader, becoming not just the best player on the floor, but a true leader and teammate as well. Asked how he got better at it, DeFalco said it was through the same process he’s gotten better at every other skill on the court: relentless practice.

“I had to fail a bunch of times,” he said. “I had to understand what it was like to yell at my teammates and then get crushed. I want us to be so good I can be negative or I can be corrosive, then if they don’t want to deal with my shit it’s five on six and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t lead to success.”

There wasn’t one lightbulb moment, but there was a fork in the path. After DeFalco’s sophomore campaign he was offered a sizable contract to leave Long Beach State and the NCAA and go play professionally in Europe. It was a tempting offer for a player who always wanted to be at the next level, the next rung on the ladder. DeFalco listened to the people in his life he’d always turned to for counsel, speaking with his father and coach.

His dad understood his son’s desire to move on and the excitement of a six-figure offer but cautioned him: “I said, ‘Dude, that’s a short term move. Your game is ready, but your head is not.’ The bigger thing was to finish his commitment to Alan and to Josh and his teammates, to go finish with the boys. Within a few days he said, ‘Yup, that’s the right thing.’”

TJ DeFalco and teammate Josh Tuaniga, part of the greatest recruiting class in LBSU men’s volleyball history, have been teammates since high school. Photo by Stephen Dachman.

Knipe obviously had a vested interest in whether DeFalco stayed or left. He was a huge part of the greatest recruiting class in program history alongside Tuaniga and opposite hitter Kyle Ensing, and that class hadn’t yet won a national title.

“Anyone could say I didn’t want him to go pro because I didn’t want to lose him, and I didn’t,” ‘said Knipe. “But honestly, the biggest thing was I didn’t think he was ready to go handle the non-volleyball part of that life in another country, isolated, with no network around him.”

It’s easy for DeFalco to imagine that life—lonely, still driven but without the contentment or satisfaction that comes from sharing in victories. It’s even easier to see the harvest he’s reaped by staying in Long Beach. He’s become a better leader, a better volleyball player, he’s in a long-term relationship with Long Beach State All-American women’s volleyballer Hailey Harward, he’s won a national championship and he’s made history with four All-American honors.

“I see him leaving here in a few weeks, having a great summer with the national team, getting on a good professional team, and I see him flourishing,” said Knipe. “And I really think that’s because he decided he was better here, instead of just, ‘I need it now, I need it right now.’”

‘Enjoying the ride’

DeFalco would like to explain something. Knipe and other naysayers might dismiss the idea of winning a set 25-0, but DeFalco isn’t ready to.

“A volleyball play is eight to 10 seconds,” he explained. “You just have to focus for that long—12 seconds if there’s a rally. That’s what’s so frustrating. Just focus for eight seconds, then you can take a break. It’s just that it’s so hard to do that for 75 to 180 plays in a row.”

This is the way DeFalco’s mind works. This is what he’s thinking when he’s biting his jersey after a mistake, but also his thought process when discussing the proportional rise in student attendance at men’s volleyball matches over the last four years. This is why he’s been chasing perfection for so long: because he’s the rare athlete, in any sport, who has both the physical and mental tools to make that goal seem attainable.

At the same time, his father and his coach and his teammates are optimistic about the happy, successful, fulfilled life ahead of DeFalco because he’s learned to accept winning a set 25-16 instead of 25-0.

“In the past, you’d always want to tell him, ‘Hey man, you’re missing out on some great moments,’” said Tuaniga. “But he’s not missing them now. He’s enjoying the ride.”

Josh Tuaniga says TJ DeFalco is finally “enjoying the ride.” Photo by Stephen Dachman.

“He’s more present with the intensity of the ups and downs and putting it in a perspective that’s more healthy,” said Torey DeFalco of his son. “It’s OK to feel intense anger or fury at yourself, but they have to wash through and leverage into something that’s holistic and healthier. You need longevity; he’s chosen a sport and a career where you need that, and he’s learned that lesson.”

There are a lot of honors and accomplishments behind him and likely a lot before him. DeFalco is less focused on rushing to the finish line and more focused on enjoying the steps along the way. He stood in a corner of the Walter Pyramid on Tuesday this week, watching an opening round NCAA Tournament match between USC and Lewis.

“It’s really almost over,” he said, the final matches of his college career just days away. That knowledge has him both introspective and excited.

“I’m still at a young stage in my career,” he said. “I need to work at shit just as much as anyone. I haven’t succeeded at the next level so I don’t know if I can yet or not, I don’t know if I’m ready for it or not. I just know I have to keep pushing and improving.”

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.