USA men overcome Nikolov, Parapunov and Bulgaria for Volleyball Nations League win

The upside to having great foreign players on an NCAA team? 

It was obvious for Hawai’i when it had Rado Parapunov, the 2021 AVCA national player of the year, and last year for Long Beach State, when it was led by freshman Alex Nikolov, the 2022 AVCA national player of the year.

The downside?

When they play for their national team, in this case Bulgaria, they can give your own national team all you can handle and more.

Such was the case Saturday in Sofia, Bulgara, when the USA men got past the home team in the Volleyball Nations League 25-12, 20-25, 26-24, 25-23 as Nikolov and Parapunov combined for 27 of their team’s 47 kills.

It left the USA 6-1 heading into their final match of the second round of the VNL when they play Poland on Sunday before getting heading home and then going to Japan on July 4.

“The match tonight was intense,” USA coach John Speraw said. “It was hard fought and with the crowd involved and they’re now blowing the whistle 15 seconds after the end of the previous play and that just adds to the level of intensity, because it never lets up.

“It’s an interesting change in the way the game is played. There’s very little time to regroup. So when things are going for you or against you, there are momentum swings either way and I think you saw that tonight. I was real pleased we were able to win and I think because it was a challenge for us there are opportunities to learn and we still got the win.”

There were big performances all around for the USA, but Kyle Ensing, the opposite from Long Beach State, continued to sparkle. He led with 17 kills, two blocks, an ace and a dig.

“Ensing’s been playing great this summer,” Speraw said. “He’s been so consistent. He’s always such a good all-around volleyball player. He digs, he blocks, he doesn’t make very many mistakes, he has good ball control. When the ball ends up in his area, he has a really good chance of digging it or setting a nice ball. What’s most notable is his offense is really improved and, as most good opposites do, getting us out of difficult situations when we need it. He’s had a really nice VNL and had another nice match tonight.”

Aaron Russell had 10 kills, two blocks, four aces and a dig. TJ DeFalco had 10 kills, including the match-ender, two aces and a dig. Jeff Jendryk had seven kills, two digs, and a block, and David Smith had four kills, two blocks and an ace. Kyle Russell and Garrett Muagututia had three kills each. Setter Josh Tuaniga had a kill, five digs and his team hit .468. Here is a video of some of Tuaniga’s setting highlights. Libero Erik Shoji had eight digs. 

The crowd in Sofia was more than 5,000 and a big reason had to be the 6-foot-7 Nikolov and 6-9 Parapunov, who were not only playing for Bulgaria, but competing in their home city.

Alex Nikolov and John Speraw/Volleyball World photo

Nikolov had 14 kills, three aces and two digs and almost single-handedly brought Bulgaria back as it nearly pulled off a big comeback in the third set. Here is a video of his highlights from the match. 

“He’s a real talent,” Speraw said. “This is his first year playing on the Bulgarian A team and he’s already made himself one of their best players and has a significant on their wins and losses. 

“His serve, as we’ve known, is of international caliber and he scored really well against us tonight, including some critical aces. It’s a challenging match-up for us.”

Parapunov had 13 kills, two block and three digs. Here is a video of Parapunov’s highlights.

“It was good to play against Rado again. Hadn’t seen him since he graduated from Hawai’i a year ago,” Speraw said. “It’s always good to see players come to the NCAA and then having an impact on their national team. He had a nice match against Iran earlier in the week and tonight he was matched up against Aaron Russell at the net, who had a nice match blocking and we were able to put some pressure on him.”

The Bulgarians weren’t the only AVCA national players of the year in the match. DeFalco won the honor in 2017 and 2019, losing out in 2018 to Long Beach teammate Tuaniaga. And Thomas Jaeschke, who played at Loyola, was the AVCA POY in 2015.

Poland, like the USA, comes into the match with six wins after sweeping Australia on Saturday.

“Obviousy the biggest factor for us after an intense match like that is the tight turnaround and battling fatigue,” said Speraw, whose team plays earlier Sunday than in its previous matches in Bulgaria. “It’s going to be a lot of us managing bodies and going out there to compete against a really good team.”

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Bulgaria’s Martin Atanasov tries to cut around the USA triple block of, from left, Kyle Ensing, David Smith and Aaron Russell/Volleyball World photo

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