The UCSB men’s volleyball team established the program’s reputation as one of the best in the nation with a dominating 3-1 (25-17, 26-28, 25-20, 25-23) victory over No. 3 Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. The Gauchos now advance to the Conference Championship Match for the first time since 1996.
[media-credit name=”Jon Kopecky” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]The 49ers jumped out to an early three-point lead in the first set, but the Gauchos capitalized on a hand injury to Long Beach’s freshman setter Connor Olbright, setting a defensive tone that carried UCSB to the biggest victory for the program in over a decade. The Gauchos limited the 49ers to a hitting percentage of .227 for the match and cruised to a 25-17 win in the first set.
“We kept them on the ropes the whole time,” senior outside hitter Cullen Irons said “We had a chance to win in three, but we let them go on a run. But we came back and closed them out. We’re stoked about advancing to the league championship. It’s a great feeling to know we’re a part of Gaucho history forever.”
UCSB lost a back-and-forth second set by a score of 26-28, but the team maintained composure and opened up a 10-3 lead to start the third set. Behind the outstanding defensive efforts of seniors Irons and Scott Slaughter, UCSB seized a 2-1 lead in the match with a third set victory. Slaughter — who leads the MPSF in hitting percentage — finished one of his most impressive nights of the year with 11 kills on 14 attacks for a .786 hitting percentage and tied sophomore middle blocker Dylan Davis for the match lead in blocks with seven.
“I didn’t have a good offensive match, but everyone picked up the slack,” Irons said. “We blocked really well. I made my contribution on defensive end. We let the volleyball do the talking. We want to keep winning. We’re close to our goal of a national title.”
The decisive fourth set saw 14 ties, including a dramatic serve from senior outside hitter Jeff Menzel at 23-23. After a poor 49er attack and an ensuing kill by senior outside hitter Trey Valbuena — who finished the night with five kills and nine blocks — a triple-block from Irons, Davis and senior setter Vince Devany secured a match victory for UCSB. Menzel led the Gaucho attack with 23 kills. Senior libero Andy McGuire also played a crucial role in the UCSB win with 12 digs.
“Reaching the conference finals is unreal,” Menzel said. “But our job isn’t done. We celebrated a little, but now we’re looking to prepare for the finals.”
Playing its best volleyball of the year, UCSB now takes on No. 1 USC in the MPSF finals Saturday at 7 p.m. at USC’s Galen Center. The Trojans won both meetings between the two teams in the regular season.