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Following a winning 18-11 season and a NCAA tournament appearance in 2013, the UCSB women’s volleyball team is looking to live up to expectations as it goes into the 2014 season ranked third in the Big West preseason poll.
Though the team lost key starters in opposite Katey Thompson and UCSB’s all-time digs leader outside hitter/libero Leah Sully, it also gained six new freshmen to the roster while maintaining five starters from last season.
Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch will also be returning for her second season as the team picked up a new assistant coach, Ryan Walthal, in addition to existing assistant coach Kolby O’Donnell.
Placing first in the Big West last season counts six titles for the team and 28 total appearances in the NCAA tournament for UCSB. Returning starters for the Gauchos this year include outside hitters sophomore Ali Spindt and junior Ali Barbeau, as well as sophomore middle blockers Phoebe Grunt and Allie Sullberg.
Last season, both Spindt and Barbeau made the All-Big West First Team, and Grunt was named an All-Big West Honorable Mention. Spindt was also named Big West Freshman of the Year. In addition, Grunt placed first in blocks in the Big West with an average of 1.28 blocks per set, followed by Sullberg who placed fourth with an average of 1.14 blocks per set.
Losing Sully will be a hit to the team’s strength and versatility as her true position as an outside hitter was sidelined to fill the role as the team’s starting libero. Searching to fill the gap left by Sully, UCSB has recruited three liberos: freshmen Sydney Bast, Kelly Bielaski and Jane Lamp.
Other incoming freshmen this year are outside hitter Chanel Hoffman, middle blocker/opposite Megan Sullivan and setter/outside hitter Noa Nightingale.
The four remaining seniors on this year’s squad are setter Ali Santi, libero Keely Stevenson, outside hitter Jordan Pehanick and middle blocker Elizabeth Meddaugh. Last year Santi ranked second on the team in sets with 399 overall.
As for the rest of the team, redshirt junior setter Hanna Nielson is returning this season after ranking seventh in the Big West and first on the team in assists with 719 overall, and an average of 6.6 assists per set. Junior opposite Jaylen Villanueva will also be returning this season after reaching a career-high of 102 kills last season.
In the Big West Preseason poll, the Gauchos came in behind Hawai’i and Long Beach State and one spot ahead of long time powerhouse Cal State Northridge. The first Big West conference game for the Gauchos will be at home in the Thunderdome against rival Cal Poly on Saturday, Sept. 27. at 7:00 p.m.