For the first time since 2009, the UCSB women’s volleyball team is in the NCAA tournament.
After finishing off their regular season with a 3-1 victory over UC Irvine, the Gauchos earned their first Big West championship since 2005, sharing it with No. 17 Hawaii and Cal State Northridge, and will travel to No. 14 San Diego for their first playoff match on Friday.
“It’s an incredible honor to be one of only 64 teams represented in the NCAA tournament. It’s a huge achievement,” Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. “We shouldn’t feel pressure and that’s a really good thing that we have going for us. We just get to go after it, play loose and have fun without the expectations, and that’s really when we’re at our best.”
The Gauchos will travel to San Diego for a tough match against a hot Toreros team that is currently on a 15-match winning streak. The Toreros, whose overall record of 24-3 was good enough to earn them the No. 9 seed in the tournament, defeated Santa Barbara, 3-0, back on Sep. 14.
“I was kind of shocked after finding out we were playing them because I thought we were going to have a better seed in the bracket,” senior opposite Katey Thompson said. “But I was also super excited because they were the last team that swept us, so that definitely left an imprint on our brains. All we want to do now is go out and get some revenge on them.”
After enduring a tough preseason, UCSB found something special right at the perfect time. The Gauchos went 13-2 over their final 15 matches, ending the season with a record at 18-10 overall and 13-3 in the Big West.
With its impressive regular season now concluded, UCSB’s outstanding play over the course of the season was acknowledged this past week with a remarkable five players named to the All-Big West teams.
“I could not have asked for my teammates to play any better [this season],” Thompson said. “Every game, every practice they stepped up and took the challenge that we had in front of us and killed it.”
Senior libero Leah Sully, who became UCSB’s all-time digs leader last weekend, was named to the All-Big West First Team along with Thompson and sophomore outside hitter Ali Barbeau. Freshman outside hitter Ali Spindt, who was named the Big West Freshman of the Year, also earned a spot on the First Team, and freshman middle blocker Phoebe Grunt was given an All-Big West Honorable Mention.
“For us to have so much representation on the All-Big West team was certainly something that shows how far we’ve come this year,” Lantagne Welch said. “Our results, obviously being tri-champions, and just having such a balanced team really showed in the All-Conference results.”
Although USD dominated UCSB in the teams’ previous matchup, the Gauchos believe that they are a different team this time around.
“Beating No. 5 Hawaii pretty much gave us the confidence to feel like we can take anyone down, so we’re not afraid,” Spindt said. “I don’t think they know what we’re [capable of].”
Santa Barbara has had great success against ranked teams this year, not only with its upset over Hawaii but also with two victories over the previously-No. 24 ranked Northridge. However, the Gauchos will need to be sharp in every aspect in order to come away with another upset.
“[San Diego is] an excellent defensive team and their floor defense is what really shines,” Lantagne Welch said. “The biggest key for us is serving tough, and in addition we need to be sharp offensively and take advantage defensively when we get them out of system.”
The Gauchos will be looking to the trio of Thompson, Spindt and Barbeau to carry them on the offensive end. Thompson’s 3.25 kills per set average was good enough for third best in the Big West this year.
UCSB will also look to its defensive trio of Sully, Grunt and freshman middle blocker Allie Sullberg to try and slow down the fast paced Toreros offense. Sully finished the year with the most digs in the Big West despite only starting the last 16 matches at libero, while Grunt and Sullberg finished in first and third in blocks per set, respectively.
“They run a very quick offense and they are very heavy with their middle and right side attack,” Lantagne Welch said. “That’s their bread and butter, so we need to be able to slow that down by serving tough, blocking well, and playing good defense.”
San Diego’s fierce offense is powered by one of the most balanced attacks in the nation with five players averaging 2.67 or more kills per set. Senior middle hitters Chloe Ferrari and Katie Hoekman lead the way for their team with incredible hitting percentages of .435 and .383, respectively. Ferrari will be the main emphasis for the Gauchos’ defense, as she was voted the 2013 WCC Player of the Year.
“We’re just going to approach it as any other game, but we’re super focused,” Spindt said. “Obviously we’re going to be extra pumped since we’re playing on such a big stage and we have this great opportunity.”
The Gauchos owe much of their success this year to Lantagne Welch, whose efforts in her first season as the team’s head coach earned her a Big West Co-Coach of the Year Award. After five trips to the NCAA tournament while coaching the University of Miami, her experience will surely be a boost for a young roster which, with the exception of Sully, has never played an NCAA tournament match.
“She pushed us and influenced us in such positive ways,” Thompson said. Without her, I don’t think we could’ve made it to the NCAAs.”
Tomorrow’s match is scheduled at 7:30 p.m. at Jenny Craig Pavilion.
A version of this article appeared on pages 1 and 8 of December 5, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.