Postseason fever has swept through Gaucho athletics this year. The UCSB men’s volleyball team will compete in the 2011 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament for the first time since 2007.
[media-credit id=16616 align=”alignright” width=”250″][/media-credit]The No. 7 Gauchos (14-14 overall, 11-11 MPSF) take on No. 2 BYU (20-7, 16-6) this Saturday in the playoff quarterfinals, hosted by the Cougars at 7 p.m. in Provo, Utah.
“Making the conference playoffs is a big step for the program,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “Getting back to that competitive level with teams vying for the national championship is where you want to be. Our seniors have worked hard to get to this point.”
With eight seniors and six returning starters from last year’s squad, UCSB clinched a conference playoff spot with a victory over UC San Diego on March 31. The Gauchos have steadily remained in the top 10 of the national rankings all year but ended the regular season with back-to-back road losses to Pepperdine and No. 1 USC. Although UCSB knocked off No. 3 Stanford last week, the Gauchos enter the MPSF tournament having dropped four of their last five matches.
“We’ve put those losses behind us and we’re completely focused on BYU,” senior outside hitter Cullen Irons said. “We’re going day by day. We’re not even thinking about the match yet. We’re just focusing on getting better. That’s been taking our minds off the pressure. We need to play our game and do whatever it takes to win.”
The senior duo of Jeff Menzel and Irons has led the Gaucho attack all year with 403 and 330 total kills, respectively. With a season hitting percentage of .505 and a team-high 86 total blocks, senior middle blocker Scott Slaughter — along with team captain Andy McGuire and setter Vince Devany — consistently contributed to the success of this year’s playoff-bound squad as well.
“BYU has a real good offense. They haven’t lost at home this year,” McGuire said. “The ultimate goal is the Final Four, then the National Championship. We’re going to have to play tough with our backs against the wall from here on out.”
The Cougars secured the No. 2 seed of the tournament after a pair of victories over Pepperdine to close the season. Led by outside hitter Taylor Sander, who was the 2011 MPSF Freshman of the Year, BYU has a skilled team with size that will be tough to beat in the nation’s most competitive conference tournament.
BYU and UCSB split their regular season matches, but the Gauchos won the last meeting by a score of 3-1 at home.
“We did some good things that night. Our team served well and put on the pressure,” McLaughlin said. “If we serve well and put pressure on them, we got a shot. They have a loud crowd and it’s a tough place to play. But we play well on the road. We have a lot of seniors. If they lose, that’s their last match. It’s one and done now. They know that and they’re ready.”
First set of the quarterfinal match of the 2011 MPSF tournament between UCSB and BYU is set for 7 p.m. at the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse.