Survive and advance. That is the motto every team must have in the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament. Thursday night in the Thunderdome, UCSB and Stanford did just that.
The #18 Cardinal (19-11 overall) made winning look easy as it swept Loyola Marymount University 15-11, 15-6, 15-9 in the evening’s first contest. The #14 Gauchos (24-7) then defeated an inspired University of Texas-San Antonio team 15-5, 15-5, 15-11 in the nightcap to set up a re-match of last season’s Elite Eight battle in Palo Alto. Stanford and UCSB will begin the second round matchup tonight in the Thunderdome at 7:30.
The Gauchos were able to advance Thursday night mainly because of their experience in tournament competition. UTSA was one of the best defensive teams Santa Barbara played all season, and although the scores were decidedly in favor of UCSB, the pesky Roadrunners were always threatening to come back. However, key digs at crucial moments seemed to keep Santa Barbara one step ahead all night long.
“I thought that we played a pretty good game,” sophomore middle blocker Danielle Bauer said. “They were a very tough defensive team. It just seemed like we got the points when we needed to get them.”
The first two serves of the opening game set the tone for the rest of the match. With junior All-American setter Brooke Rundle serving, Santa Barbara dug a ball and set it to junior outside hitter Brieanna Lampe who crushed it cross-court for the first point of the evening. On Rundle’s second serve, both teams gave the fans a taste of what was in store with a long rally that ended in a huge stuff block by freshman middle blocker Simone Kuhn.
From that point on, the first game moved slowly with both teams trading points until UCSB led 8-5. After that, the Gauchos turned their intensity up a notch and cruised to a 15-5 victory.
Game two opened up with UTSA scoring a point for its first lead of the night. But after that, it was pure Gaucho volleyball. Behind tough serving and an even distribution of sets from Rundle, Santa Barbara crept ahead methodically to another 15-5 win.
The final game was a 180-degree turn from the first two games. During the 10 minute intermission between games two and three, the Roadrunners rediscovered the intensity that helped them to the 15-match winning streak they were riding into the Tournament. UTSA surged out to a 10-8 lead, but could not hold on. Crucial hitting errors and an ace by Bauer put the game out of reach. Santa Barbara completed the sweep 15-11.
“I am very pleased with how our team played [Thursday night],” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said after the match. “We played with a lot of energy. They are a great defensive team. [The fans in] Santa Barbara really got to see what two good defensive teams look like.”
The only drawback to the win was the loss of freshman outside hitter Erica Menzel. In an unfortunate accident during warm-ups, Menzel injured her hand and did not play at all in the contest. Initial tests indicate that she suffered a dislocated fourth metacarpal. Menzel will most likely not play again this season.
“I am so disappointed to have lost a player before the game even started,” Gregory said. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything like that.”
Although Menzel’s absence was not felt strongly against the Roadrunners, Santa Barbara will miss her offensive firepower tonight against a very tall Cardinal team.
Stanford is one of four teams, along with UCSB, UOP and Penn State, who have qualified for all 20 NCAA Tournaments. The Cardinal, who lost last year in the National Championship match to Penn State, has never lost a first round match, and last lost a second round match in 1989. Santa Barbara last dropped a second round match in 1996.
But those matches are ancient history in both the minds of Stanford and UCSB. The Cardinal has eliminated Santa Barbara from two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, and the Gauchos want revenge.
UCSB must serve tough and knock Stanford out of rhythm to gain the upper hand. The Gauchos must also try and rally as long as possible, because the longer rallies favor Santa Barbara. Finally, UCSB must always keep an eye on Stanford sophomore outside hitter Logan Tom. Tom, who started for the United States National Team in the Olympics this past summer, is one of the top players in the country and is capable of taking over a match at any time.
“Stanford is a very good team,” Gregory said. “We will be ready. Hopefully, we can keep the rallies long and server tough. … With a great player like Tom on the court, you can’t hope to shut her down, you just have to play around her. … It’s about time we paid them back for knocking us out twice these past few years.”