The UCSB men’s volleyball team did not start off the year as planned, dropping all three games in the Santa Barbara Invitational to start the season. On January 7, in the opening round of their own tournament, the Gauchos lost to Cal State Northridge, before falling to Long Beach State in the second round later that evening.
“It’s a little rough,” junior middle blocker Scott Slaughter said. “The overall outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we did a bunch of little things right and were in all of the games. We just have to work out a few kinks.”
Santa Barbara and Northridge were tied 1-1 after the first two games, before the Matadors won two straight, effectively ending the match 3-1. In the losing effort, junior outside hitter Jeff Menzel reached a milestone with his 1,000th career kill, becoming the 11th Gaucho ever to accomplish that feat.
“It’s great to see him accomplish that,” Slaughter said of Menzel’s milestone. “He’s only a junior too. It’s kind of scary to think about what he can still do.”
While Menzel acknowledges the accomplishment, he remains humble and focused on bigger and better things.
“I am proud of [the milestone] to an extent,” Menzel said. “I would give a few of those kills back for some wins. It’s cool but I’m not really focused on it, I’m focused on the winning.”
Senior middle blocker Kevin McKniff had 16 kills for the Matadors in the win. McKniff would go on to win most valuable player of the tournament as CSUN won the Invitational, beating BYU in the championship game 3-1.
In the second round, UCSB met Long Beach State. The Gauchos held a 2-1 advantage over the 49ers, but could not close out the match. Three Gauchos posted double-digit kills in the game, but Santa Barbara lost in the fifth set, 15-10. Menzel led the Gauchos with match-high 31 kills. Junior opposite Cullen Irons posted 13 kills and senior opposite Jake Rosener added 10 kills and a team-high 13 digs.
“To me it just seemed like a lack of energy,” Slaughter said of the team’s struggles against Long Beach. “We need to keep up the energy level throughout and get more pumped up in between games and sets.”
For the Gauchos, the key to their success may be as simple as adjusting the team’s mindset and approach to the game.
“It is all mental with us,” Menzel said. “We just have to play to win, rather than play not to lose.”
On January 8, the second day of the tourney, Santa Barbara met the 13th ranked UC San Diego Tritons in the seventh place match. The Gauchos could not crawl back from a 2-0 deficit, ultimately falling to the Tritons 3-2 in the match, which was played at Robertson Gymnasium. In the loss, Slaughter, an intricate part of the squad from a year ago, converted on 10 of his 13 total attacks with no errors in his first action of the year due to a hand injury.
“It’s great to be back,” Slaughter said. “There is no pain at all. We currently have three middle blockers fighting for two spots, so we’ll see what happens.”
Although their losses came at the hands of some very good competition (the #7, #9, and #13 teams in the nation, respectively), the Gauchos believe they are better than they have shown thus far. Ranked #14 in the nation heading into the year, Santa Barbara realizes there is need for improvement to compete at the highest level of college volleyball.
“We definitely are right there with those top teams,” Slaughter said. “Preseason is all about trying to improve in practice and work on the little things, and we are doing that.”
UCSB will soon have a chance to avenge one of its losses in the Invitational, when the Gauchos (0-3) open up their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation season at home in the Thunderdome tonight at 7:00 p.m. against Long Beach State (1-2).
“We are excited to face some of those teams again,” Slaughter said. “We get Long Beach and San Diego again this week, and will definitely be prepared after viewing the game film. To beat Long Beach, we have to work on our serving to shut down their main go-to guy Dean Bittner.”
The Gauchos will look to defend home court against Long Beach, something they failed to do against the 49ers when the two teams met in the second round of the Santa Barbara Invitational.
“We have the tools, we just have to find the right equation,” Menzel said. “We are just being a little patient, but we are right there with all these teams and we will show it.”