For the first time since 1984, the Long Beach State women’s volleyball team opens its season with a new head coach.
Recently retired head coach Brian Gimmillaro didn’t miss a match in the last 32 years, and only missed one practice in that time (not due to illness but to recruit a high school player). Gimmillaro didn’t even miss practice after he had knee surgery, hobbling into the gym that afternoon.
That’s why it was odd to walk into the Walter Pyramid in the first week of practice for the 2017 season and see … well, anyone else.
First-year head coach and program alumnus Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer admitted it’s a little weird for her, too, but also nice being back to her alma mater.
“Coming back home’s been really exciting, we’ve gotten a lot of support from everyone in the community,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer said.
The 49ers were picked to finish third in the Big West, mostly because there a lot of new, unproven names on their roster. Nonetheless, expectations will be high: Gimmillaro said before his retirement he felt it would be the 49ers’ most talented roster in 15 years.
Returning are All-Big West middle blockers Ashley Murray and YiZhi Xue, and Big West All-Freshman honoree Hailey Harward.
Harward is a genuine leader in the back row, as the fiery libero is as competitive as they come.
“It’s scary having new coaches in because you have to prove yourself all over again, but it’s also exciting,” she said. “Coming into practice every day and doing something new is exciting. Last year we did the same drill every time at the same time and you get used to that, there can be a lull—now we’re doing new things every day and adjusted.”
Around that trio of standout returners (and junior Megan Kruidhof, a Lakewood grad) is a host of new faces that have arrived via transfer or from overseas.
The most notable is Alexis Patterson, a senior setter who will lead the team’s offense this year. Patterson is a grad transfer from UNLV, where she led the Rebels to the second round of the NCAA last year, and where she’s second in career assists with 3,520.
“She’s coming along great,” McKienzie-Fuerbringer said. “We like what we see in her with leadership and choicemaking.”
The team has added some size outside with a freshman from Slovakia, Monika Simkova, a lefty outside hitter who stands at 6-feet-2. The also got another transfer in Emma Kirst, a 6-4 outside/opposite. Fans can expect to see Murray some on the right side of the net as a middle blocker transfer from Norway. Kjersti “KJ” Norveel (6-2) gives the 49ers too many good middles.
McKienzie-Fuerbringer and husband Matt (the team’s top assistant) will need a year or two of recruiting to start putting their own stamp on the program. Regardless of who’s on the roster, one thing the 49ers always have behind them is history—Long Beach State is one of only 10 programs with a national title to its name. Only Penn State, Stanford, Nebraska, and UCLA have more NCAA titles than the 49ers’ three.
“The history here with Brian and Debbie Green, they built such a strong foundation for the sport,” said McKienzie-Fuerbringer. “You also have the support of the community and the athletic department, it’s a special program.”
The 49ers still have a long way to go as they try to bring together new coaches, new players, and a new system—that was evident during last weekend’s alumni match, when the former 49ers beat the current team in four sets. But McKienzie-Fuerbringer said she knows it’s going to be a process, and that her program is thinking about November, not August.
“We want to be good at the end of the season,” she said. “Even if we’re not at our best at the beginning of the season.”
Friday: Long Beach State vs. Stanford, noon
Long Beach State vs. Wright State, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Long Beach State vs. Iowa, 7 p.m.
*All home matches in the Walter Pyramid