Stijn van Tilburg stars as UH takes Big West title in thriller

Somehow, Stijn van Tilburg operated outside of the spotlight for most of this special 2019 Hawaii men’s volleyball season.

Whether it was Rado Parapunov winning Big West player of the week seemingly weekly for a two-month stretch, or the local product Colton Cowell rising to the occasion when it mattered, or the Worsley brothers Joe and Gage earning plaudits, “SVT” — the 6-foot-8 senior from the Netherlands who happens to be a top-10 player in UH kills with 1,388 — was the steady, slightly taken-for-granted commodity. He wasn’t flashy, nor was he asked to be.

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But that was not the case Saturday. Not when the Big West tournament championship was at stake in front of more than 9,500 strong in the Stan Sheriff Center. Hawaii needed everything the veteran van Tilburg had in a 25-15, 25-23, 22-25, 20-25, 15-8 slugfest with rival Long Beach State.

He delivered. Van Tilburg, the tournament’s most valuable player, dropped 25 kills without an error on 46 swings, hitting a phenomenal .543.

“We know how hard everyone has worked for this,” van Tilburg said. “This is for each other.”

He just didn’t make mistakes. This season, he’s hit .473, a full 100 points better than his previous best for a full season, .370 as a sophomore. And that efficiency was evident Saturday, as he put balls on the money, on command, in one pressure-packed situation after another in the marathon match.

“It was pretty amazing, and you know what, he was absolutely gassed,” coach Charlie Wade said. “You could tell there, too. It was just sheer will. The heart of a warrior, man, he played hard at the end when they knew he was running on fumes. But a young man like that who has grown so much as a player and a person, to go through this kind of stuff, it takes some strength, some mental strength and character. And that really showed tonight.”

Cowell was spectacular in his own right with a career-high 18 kills and 12 digs. Middle Dalton Solbrig put down nine kills on 10 attempts, including the match-winner. However, Parapunov, UH’s No. 1 option most of the season, had his issues with LBSU for the third time in three matches, hitting .038 on 26 swings.

“He’s such a big part of us,” van Tilburg said of the junior opposite. “We know that whenever they’re (keying on him), our middles and our outsides need to step up and score those points that he usually makes.”

Van Tilburg played a supportive role in the lopsided first set as Cowell came out blazing and UH tested the waters with Parapunov.

But the “Flying Dutchman” revved it up in the very competitive second set, with five kills among UH’s first 11 points. When UH narrowly prevailed in that frame, all was right in the world for the rocking crowd. Van Tilburg, as he’s done throughout his career, exhorted the fans for more noise.

Then The Beach proved its mettle, seizing Sets 3 and 4 and forcing the match to go the distance — as they had, twice, on their home floor at The Pyramid in two 49ers wins last week.

“These guys don’t give up. You saw it last week,” van Tilburg said. “We were up 2-1, you can just count on them not giving up. That’s just life. You get up two, and they’re going to battle back. It’s how you respond.”

Years from now, he said, he will remember playing against this elite opponent — with a very possible rematch in store in the upcoming NCAA tournament — more than any medal or plaque.

Then Joe Worsley, the senior setter, volunteered something next to van Tilburg at the postgame interview podium.

“To be honest, Stijn is the one guy (saying), ‘just smile,’” Worsley said. “That’s what he kept saying: ‘just smile’ to everybody. The guys were getting frustrated, we felt we were leaving plays we usually make. Stijn was the guy coming, ‘hey, we just gotta smile and enjoy it.’ And so that was huge, especially going into that fifth set. You go up two sets, and then you’re down, and all of a sudden the momentum is just totally on their side. For him to come in and just kind of settle everybody down, that was important, and everybody relished that and was able to close it out.”

Van Tilburg had just enough left. His consecutive cross-court kills to open the fifth set the stage for what would be a celebration of a final frame.

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“Colton put in a couple of great serves, a couple of great plays,” van Tilburg said. “To me, I just want to finish those rallies. (Last week), we didn’t achieve those points when we worked so hard for them. Tonight, I just really wanted to do that.”

He did. And he smiled.

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