The #14 UCSB women’s volleyball team will travel tonight to Cal Poly to battle the Mustangs in the last league match of the season for the Gauchos.
“[The Mustangs’] program has been having a resurgence lately these last few years,” Santa Barbara Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “This year they returned four starters and had really high expectations, and other than their win over Long Beach [State], they haven’t done much. But a win for them against us could be huge and help get them into the [NCAA] tournament.”
Cal Poly is no slouch this season despite its 9-6 league record. Overall, it is 15-9 on the year and is looking to make it to the NCAA Tournament in December. One of the main reasons the Mustangs are able to have such lofty expectations is their ability to block and serve. The Mustangs are the top blocking and third-ranked serving team in the Big West. Cal Poly averages 3.36 blocks and 1.55 aces per game, respectively. Together, those two skills allow the Mustangs to score points quickly and pin their opponents in a corner.
One of the reasons Cal Poly serves and blocks so well is the dominance of senior outside hitter Melanie Hathaway. She is arguably the best player in the Big West. Hathaway’s play this season has put her in four of the top-10 Big West statistical categories. She is first in kills per game, third in aces per game, ninth in digs per game and ninth in hitting percentage.
Despite Hathaway’s success against the Big West this season, the Gauchos (22-6 overall, 13-2 in the Big West) were able to keep Hathaway in check in their lone meeting earlier in the year. Santa Barbara limited her to 13 kills, one ace and two blocks during UCSB’s three-game sweep of Cal Poly on Nov. 8 in the Thunderdome.
“Despite all of the hype, I think we are just going into this game as any other game,” freshman middle blocker Simone Kuhn said. “We still really want to win, but I don’t think there are any bad feelings left from last year. [Thursday] was the first time I ever heard anyone say anything about that match.”
The match that Kuhn referred to was a heart-breaking loss to Cal Poly on the road last year in five games. Santa Barbara has, however, beaten the Mustangs twice since then, sweeping them on both dates in three games. Current players who competed in that five-game loss still harbor harsh feelings against their Central Coast rivals.
The normally reserved sophomore outside hitter Brooke Niles is looking forward to rekindling the Santa Barbara-Cal Poly rivalry.
“This is a big game for us because we have to go up there and play them,” Niles said. “It is a hard gym to win in. But none of us like them, and I don’t think we ever will. Some of us have played with some of their players in the past, and we definitely have a big vendetta with them.”
The match at Cal Poly begins at 7 p.m.