When the UCSB women’s volleyball team came into Hawaii in early October, it was a sub-.500 team with a new coach in search of an identity. The Rainbow Wahine had been undefeated in conference since entering the Big West last season, and a scrappy Gauchos’ squad appeared to be no threat to the dominant team that was ranked No. 3 in the nation.
Now, less than a month later, UCSB is near the top of the Big West, sitting just a half game back from Cal State Northridge for first place. At 13-8 overall and 8-1 in conference, the Gauchos have turned it on lately. They are going for their ninth-straight win this weekend against No. 3 Hawaii, who they beat earlier this season by a score of 3-2 in one of the most thrilling matches they have played in years.
After the loss to UCSB, the Rainbow Wahine stumbled further by losing two straight Big West matches on the road a week later. Now, the once unstoppable and unanimous choice to win the conference finds itself dreadfully sitting in third place with a record of 18-4 overall and 7-3 in conference.
“It’s going to be a really tough match but we’re looking forward to it,” Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. “They’re going to be coming in really fired up because we broke their streak and beat them in their place, so we know we’re going to get their best game.”
Possessing one of the best offenses in the nation, Hawaii leads the conference in every important offensive stat including kills, kill percentage, assists per set and points per set.
“We’re going to have to be ready for them and play at a really high level,” Lantagne Welch said. “We’re really looking forward to that challenge and having the opportunity to play in front of our home crowd and hopefully a great environment.”
Leading the way for the Rainbow Wahine as always is senior outside hitter Emily Hartong, who leads the Big West with 4.65 kills per set. Setting her up is senior setter Mita Uiato, who is first in the conference averaging 10.88 assists per set.
“They are a good hitting team,” senior opposite Katey Thompson said. “We need to make sure we serve them tough so they won’t be able to execute their offense.”
The Gauchos’ counter for Hartong is Thompson, who averages a second-best 3.49 kills per set. The last time these two teams met, she played one of her best games this season with a team-high 19 kills and an astounding 10 block assists.
While UCSB has been picking up the wins, they have not done so with any kind of remarkable offensive stats. Staying disciplined may be the number one reason why the Gauchos are 8-1 in the conference as they have accumulated the lowest amount of errors in the Big West.
UCSB finds its strength in its defense, which held Hartong and the entire Hawaii offense to just a .111 hitting percentage in October. Freshman Phoebe Grunt has quickly found her place as one of the best middle blockers in the conference, averaging a Big West leading 1.17 blocks per set.
“Our confidence is definitely higher than the first time we played them,” Thompson said. “At the same time we need to make sure we have the same determination in order to win.”
Anchoring the middle at libero for the Gauchos is the invaluable senior Leah Sully, who has now risen to fourth in the Big West with 3.69 digs per set. If the Gauchos fall behind, Sully may be asked to play her more favored position of outside hitter as she did in a come-from-behind win against UC Davis several weeks ago.
However, the Rainbow Wahine may have the advantage in the form of senior libero Ali Longo, who leads the Big West with 332 digs this season.
The match will be played Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in the Thunderdome.
A version of this article appeared on page 7 of November 7, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Daily Nexus File Photo.