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Try, Try Again

Polster, 49ers Look to Make Amends


The last two seasons ended in disappointment for Jim Polster and his Long Beach State volleyball teammates, but the 49ers continue their march this season to ease that pain.

Today in Provo, Utah, Long Beach State (18-6), ranked third in the nation, plays fourth-ranked UCLA (21-7) in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal. Brigham Young (21-3), the host and top-ranked team, plays second-ranked Hawaii (18-6) in the other semifinal. The winners will meet Saturday with an automatic berth to the NCAA Final Four at stake.

Two years ago, when Polster was a sophomore, the 49ers reached the NCAA final but lost to Brigham Young. Last season, Long Beach's season ended more unexpectedly, with a first-round loss to Loyola Marymount at home, in the first round of the MPSF tournament.

"That is definitely a painful memory," said Polster, a Dana Hills graduate. "Knowing it was the last match for [the seniors] and to have to sit there and watch . . . it was a dagger. It definitely drives us to do better this year.

"I just want to get a ring."

If Long Beach can win two matches in Provo, it would gain an edge. The Pyramid, the 49ers' home court, will be the site of this year's Final Four.

Polster can't think of a better place for redemption.

"The crowd would be incredible," Polster said. "I can't wait."

But first, the 49ers have to fight through the MPSF tournament. Long Beach State Coach Alan Knipe said he always thought Polster was "unbelievably confident," and now the 6-foot-6 outside hitter has blossomed into the player his coach says he always thought he could be.

"After I saw Jim play in high school and when we got him to come here, I thought we were getting the best in the country at that position that year," Knipe said.

"From the beginning, I thought Jim would be a guy we would send on to the national team. I know that will happen. Jim has a ways to go to get there, but no one will work or train harder."

Polster's work ethic and attitude set the tone for a team on which more attention is often paid to fellow seniors Matt Prosser, a middle blocker, and David McKienzie, an opposite.

"But as good as Prosser and McKienzie are, someone has to pass the ball to get it started or you can't set the big guys," Knipe said. "So as long as we get Jim playing at a high level, we're all fine."

Polster also leads the team in blocks (77 in 84 games). He's second behind McKienzie in kills (3.56 per game) and digs (1.63 per game), and he also has 38 aces, second best on the team.

He's been in double figures in kills 17 times this season and is fifth on the 49er career list for kills, with 1,345.

"In every area he can help us score points," Knipe said.

Polster has started since his first match as a freshman. Knipe, then an assistant to Ray Ratelle, thought enough of Polster to play him ahead of Ryan Mariano, a former Times Orange County player of the year from El Toro.

"Ryan was like, one of the best ever in high school and he was sitting behind me," Polster said. "I was saying, 'Geez, what is [Knipe] thinking sometimes?' "

But Polster got some reassurance when the 49ers visited Hawaii for two matches during his freshman year. After losing the first match, Long Beach won the second.

"I had 27 kills in that win and that's still my career high," Polster said. "In that match, [Knipe] pulled me aside and said 'I don't want you thinking there's someone behind you. Don't play tentatively.' That was a huge boost for me."

"Here he was," said Knipe, "a true freshman, and he was going to go out there and play in front of 10,000 people. We wanted to reassure him that we weren't going to yank him out of there. We were going to build the team around what he could do.

"And he played great. His confidence went soaring from there."

Although Polster was still inexperienced, his and potential convinced the coaches to stick with him.

"The upside of Jim was, OK, maybe on a scale of 10 he was a one or two at that point of his development," Knipe said. "But he had the ability to be a 10.

"He has a nasty streak in him to compete. He had the right temperament for us. I knew he had to be on the floor for us from the beginning."

Knipe said Polster has also grown as a leader and he sets the example for the younger players, laying a foundation for years to come.

"In all the years I've coached and played," Knipe said, "there's no one I've seen that works harder, every day in practice and in every match."

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