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The No. 5 UCSB men’s volleyball team faces a crucial week ahead as it fights to maintain a ranking in the final weeks before postseason play.
The Gauchos will hit the road for the last time this season, matching up against No. 5 Long Beach State today and Cal State Northridge Saturday.
UCSB holds a strong overall record of 14-7 and a conference record of 13-7. The Gauchos share the same conference record and are tied for third place alongside Stanford and Long Beach State.
This three-way tie is an important factor heading into this week’s games. Only the top eight teams will advance to the MPSF Tournament. As of now, BYU has secured the No. 1 seed, but there still is a very tight race for the seven remaining spots.
“This week is big; we are currently tied for third with a few other teams,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “With these last four matches, you could finish anywhere from second to ninth.”
The Gauchos will enter tonight’s match against Long Beach coming off of a recent loss at BYU. Typically, entering a match off a loss halts momentum, or lowers a team’s morale, but it seems to be anything but the case for this Santa Barbara team.
“The mentality this week has been good. We consider BYU the best team in the country and we took them 15-13 at their place. No one else has been able to do that this year,” junior outside hitter Weston Nielsen said. “We know how good we can be and we are just trying to translate that over into practice for Long Beach this week.”
The key to success for the Gauchos this season has been their ability to serve and pass the ball well. Heading into this week’s games, UCSB will look to senior opposite Evan Licht and senior libero Chad Kingi to uphold these elements.
Licht has dominated the service line this season, currently holding a team high 32 service aces. Kingi has anchored the back row for the Gauchos all year and is currently averaging 2.17 digs per set.
Another asset to the Gaucho lineup this week is junior middle blocker Jake Staahl. Staahl is ranked fifth in the nation in blocks, averaging 1.30 per set and currently holds a team high hitting percentage of .408. UCSB will rely on Staahl to shut down some of Long Beach State’s key players.
Long Beach will enter tonight’s matchup coming off of a 3-0 loss to UC Irvine. Earlier this season when the Gauchos hosted the Prospectors they defeated them in a four set match.
The biggest threat for the Gauchos heading into tonight’s game will be nationally-ranked senior outside hitter Taylor Crabb. Crabb leads the nation with an average of 4.80 kills per set and has yet to see a match where he hasn’t reached double digits. Another challenge for UCSB will be Long Beach’s impressive 9-1 record at home this conference season.
“In the past we have gone down to Long Beach not ready to play,” Nielsen said. “We need to go down there ready to play from the beginning and we will be fine.”
On Saturday, UCSB will travel to play Cal State Northridge. CSUN currently holds an overall record of 8-15 and are ranked 10th in the MPSF. Last time the Gauchos faced the Matadors, they swept them 3-0.
Junior middle blocker Greg Faulker will pose to be a threat to UCSB on both offense and defense. Faulker is second on the team in kills and holds a .447 hitting percentage. In addition, he has a team high 82 blocks on the season.
“The biggest things is that our guys know that is they play well they can beat anyone,” McLaughlin said. “They can compete with anyone in the league.”
Tonight’s game, and Saturday night’s game are scheduled for 7 p.m. start times.
A version of this article appeared on page 1 of April 3rd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of the Daily Nexus.