There are plenty of new developments with the men’s volleyball team as it enters the 2009 season. They have a new head coach, Rick McLaughlin, taking over a program that had been led by coaching legend Ken Preston for the past 30 years. They have an entirely new team look following the departure of nearly half of their starting lineup, including former all Mountain Pacific Sports Federation first team selection Theo Brunner. They even have a newfound vacancy at team journalist with the unfortunate retirement of “Fish Tales,” the infamous online diary of former senior outside hitter Michael Fisher. Most importantly, they have a new season with high hopes of a return to prominence after barely missing the MPSF playoffs in a disappointing 2008 campaign.
“We definitely messed up in some big spots in our games last season,” sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter said. “I’m confident that we can win more of the close ones this season because so many of our losses came down to the wire.”
All the changes that have befallen an inexperienced Gaucho squad could be classified as setbacks if it were not for the complete faith that the players have instilled in their new head coach. Pushing his team both in practice and preseason play, McLaughlin has commanded the respect of his team since day one.
“Our new coach is unbelievable,” Slaughter said. “Rick has us focusing everyday on the little stuff, and the guys have responded.”
The former Loyola Marymount coach has his young squad primed and ready for their season opener Friday against the University of the Pacific at Robertson Gymnasium in the annual Elephant Bar Restaurant Collegiate Invitational, a showcase of the top volleyball teams in the nation that Santa Barbara is hosting for the 45th time.
“We’ve played them [Pacific] once already in preseason, and beat them in four [sets],” sophomore opposite Cullen Irons said. “Just like us, they’re underrated, so the key is not to overlook them and take it point-by-point.”
UCSB will enter their matchup versus the Tigers – picked to finish last in the MPSF – as the 10th ranked team in a 12 team conference according to the preseason coaches poll, due in large part to their lack of veteran players. However, the tenured Gaucho players maintain that their ability to contend has not declined, but rather progressed with the emergence of new talent.
“We really got sandbagged on our ranking,” Slaughter said. “No one really knows how we’re going to perform, so we were picked to finish low because we lost a bunch of seniors.”
One player that will undoubtedly pick up the slack is sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel, who displayed fantastic athleticism in his freshman year, racking up a team-leading 450 kills as the only player to start all 27 matches of the season. There is no question that the explosive Santa Barbara native will further improve on his offensive game as the team’s number one option, with the physical tools to become a bona fide superstar.
“He [Menzel] comes out aggressive every game, and hits one of the hardest balls in the league,” said Irons.
Though several players should be able to get more in-game experience to aid Menzel in the Santa Barbara attack, there is still fierce competition at almost every position for the Gauchos, with several of the highly touted incoming freshmen driving the returning starters to play at their highest level. Despite the rivalry brewing as players attempt to cement their roles in Coach McLaughlin’s lineup, the chemistry brewing between all the players is better than ever.
“Our team is basically a giant family that spends every day together,” Slaughter said. “We encourage everyone regardless of whether they’re playing at the same position.”
Hopefully, the team’s togetherness off the court will translate to improved team play on it. After facing off against Pacific at 1 p.m., Santa Barbara will play their second match at 7 p.m. The game time for their Saturday finale will hinder on how the team performs in their Friday games, with the Gauchos shooting for the championship bout at 6:30 p.m.