LONG BEACH, Calif. -- When you win 22 matches in a row, you're a gorilla. Not a guerrilla.
When you've won your last 15 volleyball games -- five straight sweeps -- you're Goliath. With David's slingshot.
But when you do all that and you're still Long Beach State, you get to play both roles.
Thunderdog and underdog.
"You look at our team, and there's no question we're overachievers," coach Ray Ratelle said.
They're also 16-0 in matches and 48-6 in games, and No. 1 in this shrinking volleyball nation. So there aren't many questions, period.
Last Friday, Long Beach went up to Southern California, which had the last Greatest Volleyball Team ever, until the 49ers upset the Trojans in the '91 NCAA finals. Long Beach is much better than Southern Cal this year, and a muted Lyon Center crowd seemed to know it.
But the 49ers ground out the first two games as if they still had points to prove, and when they fell behind, 14-9, in Game 3 they never conceded. They roared back to win, 17-16, and Alan Knipe, the All-America middle blocker, reveled.
"We love to get up for USC, UCLA and Stanford," Knipe said. "No matter how many matches we win, we don't have any trouble getting motivated for them."
See the Niners, and you see why.
Setter Jason Stimpfig is listed at 6 feet 1. Maybe he even believes it. He's four to six inches shorter than most men at his position, yet he made the All-Final Four team last year and is just as good now.
Brent Hilliard, the All-America opposite hitter who left the U.S. team to finish up at Long Beach this year, was recruited by hardly anybody. He went to Humboldt State because he had a brother there and played volleyball on the club level. Now he's as electrifying a college athlete as you'll see this year, Harold Miner included. Hilliard, like Miner, is hungry for the ball, and he never lets his teammates rest.
"Brent's accustomed to playing with great international players," Knipe said, "so he got on us pretty good whenever we made mistakes early in the year. He and I got into it in practice one day. That's good -- we're co-captains, and the team could see we could be honest with each other. But I know where he's coming from. I don't pay much attention to what he says. He's just intense."
And Knipe? He was a good, but not great, outside hitter in high school and college, and he wasn't known for his passing. After one year at Orange Coast, Knipe was approached by Long Beach, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara. Pepperdine and Santa Barbara offered him a little scholarship money. Long Beach didn't. Knipe signed with Long Beach. The business school, and the presence of assistant coach, and ex-Orange Coast assistant, Mike D'Alessandro, did it.
Now Knipe, who helps make the 49ers so airtight defensively, is on scholarship. You define that differently in volleyball, and at Long Beach. Ratelle has 2 1/2 scholarships to dole out -- the NCAA permits 4 1/2 . Hilliard gets a full one, all to himself. That's 1 1/2 for everybody else.
"There's just no money," Ratelle said. "It's a problem for everybody in the sport. We've got 58 schools playing volleyball, and if you drop under 55, the NCAA doesn't sanction it anymore.
"The good part is that interest is booming. Cal-Berkeley is talking about getting back into it, and Pacific is showing interest. The other good part is that it isn't that expensive. Asics Tiger sponsors us and donates the equipment. We don't travel to the (( East, because there's no reason to. All the competition and all the players you need are right around us. And we make a little money on our own. We get people to come out."
Loudest among them is Robert Knipe. He's Alan's father, Alan's ex-soccer coach, Alan's inspiration.
"The work ethic I've got, I got from him," Alan said. "The toughest competitor I've ever been around."
Robert, a machinist by trade, was a distinguished soccer player in Northern Ireland, where he and his wife lived until he was 33.
L "We left there before most of the trouble started," he said.
The Knipes moved here for all the basic American Dream reasons, and Robert coached youth soccer teams that won seven championships in nine years.
Alan was a committed soccer player, although he was getting a little tall for it (he's 6-5 now). Then, at Marina, he began playing volleyball. What happens to a lot of tall, springy, would-be basketball stars, happened to Alan.
"I got hooked," he said. "I'd play all morning and all afternoon and get the keys to the gym and play some more."
"When they get to be 18 years old," Robert said in a lilt that hasn't faded, "they can make up their own minds. Besides, I know soccer gave Alan the quick feet he has today.
"And volleyball's a faster game."
Many U.S. team members plan to retire after the Olympics, and Knipe has a shot to replace one. It's still possible Hilliard can back up Steve Timmons in Barcelona this year. Long Beachers, playing for the One Last Superpower. They might not know how to act.