In front of a jam-packed Rob Gym on senior night, the No. 5 UCSB men’s volleyball team defied the odds, taking down No. 3 BYU in its most pivotal match of the season.
This win, in combination with UC Irvine’s recent loss to Stanford, secures a fourth-place MPSF finish for the Gauchos and grants them the opportunity to host a first-round playoff match.
UCSB ends its regular conference season with an overall record of 17-8 and improves to 16-8 in the MPSF. With an upcoming first-round match in Santa Barbara, it is important to note that the Gauchos had an impressive year at home, with an overall record of 12-2 in Rob Gym. BYU drops to 18-8 overall and 18-6 in conference play.
“It’s huge because we lost to BYU in such a great match up there,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “That’s a big win heading into playoffs; we know what we can do.”
UCSB opened the match strong with an early 10-3 gain on the Cougars. Senior opposite Evan Licht, redshirt junior Weston Nielsen and senior middle blocker Ryan Thompson were all responsible for multiple kills early in the first set. Adding to the early offensive momentum, sophomore setter Jonah Seif had two back-to-back service aces.
Despite taking the lead early on, multiple UCSB attack errors and a quick turnaround from BYU’s lead offensive player, senior outside hitter Taylor Sander, resulted in a tie game at 15-15. BYU took the first set with a 24-21 victory.
“It’s our bad. You should never give up a lead like we had,” McLaughlin said. “But our guys stuck with it; they didn’t let it phase them for the next three games, which is a great thing to see.”
In the second set, the Gauchos came out with vengeance, again taking an early 12-5 lead over the Cougars. Back-to-back kills from Nielsen and multiple BYU attack errors were the recipe to success in the second set. The Gauchos recorded an impressive .400 hitting clip in this set, holding BYU to an abnormally low .071. UCSB took the second game with a dominant 25-15 finish.
“We got caught up in the swing of things and they fired back,” senior opposite Evan Licht said. “They have some good serving, but we really settled in after game one.”
In the third and fourth sets, the teams demonstrated a more even exchange of points. With a tie game at 10-10 in the third, an attack error from BYU’s Sander gave the Gauchos the edge they needed to claim the lead. Senior outside hitter Matt Hanley stepped up for the Gauchos offensively and Licht contributed with a key service ace. UCSB won the third set 28-26.
“Our seniors were so fired up for this,” Nielsen said. “The crowd was amazing. It was probably the most people I have seen in here in a long, long time.”
A crowd of over 1,800 fans cheered on the Gauchos as they headed into a very important fourth set. BYU jumped out ahead with the first two points, but a kill from Nielsen and another service ace from Licht would make it even at 2-2. The Gauchos finally took the lead at 15-14, and maintained it for most of the set with BYU on their heels. An attack error late in the game from UCSB’s Hanley gave away the lead at 25-26. A combination of a Seif kill and two BYU attack errors ended the game in UCSB’s favor. The Gauchos pulled away in the final set with a 28-26 victory.
“If that’s a peak, that is a pretty good peak right there,” Nielsen said. “If we can have all seven guys playing like that throughout the postseason, we know we will do big things.”
UCSB will host the UCLA Bruins in the first round of MPSF playoffs this Saturday.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of April 14th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Cameryn Brock of the Daily Nexus.