With a win tonight against No. 5 UC Irvine, the UCSB men’s volleyball team can secure a playoff spot in the MPSF Tournament. It will be an extremely difficult test as the Gauchos take on one of the best teams in the country and one that beat Santa Barbara in three straight sets the last time these two teams matched up.
“It’s definitely crunch time. Time to try and gain momentum before playoffs,” junior setter Jonah Seif said. “Every match means a lot at this point in the season.”
The Gauchos currently sit fifth in the MPSF standings with a 10-8 league record. They are fending off No. 6 BYU and its equal 10-8 record by holding a two-way tiebreaker on 5-3 head-on MPSF sets played. With only four games left in the standings, tonight provides an opportunity for Santa Barbara to show that it will be a force to reckon with once playoffs begin in two weeks.
UCI boasts an extremely strong 22-4 overall record, 16-3 in MPSF. The Anteaters are currently second in the MPSF standings, behind only No. 1 Hawaii and its 16-2 MPSF record. Irvine has won its last four matches, including a two game sweep over BYU in its home gym at the end of March. Expect the Anteaters to come into Rob Gym hoping to take the Gauchos down quickly, as they hope to end the season at the top of the MPSF standings.
“They’re a very good team. It’s going take a lot to beat them” sophomore outside hitter Jacob Delson said. “They’re beatable but we just have to be disciplined … Serve receive and passing are going be huge for us.”
In UCI’s most recent match, the Anteaters defeated No. 10 Long Beach State in four sets. Senior libero Michael Brinkley, a first team All-American the past two seasons, set a school record with 25 digs in the match while senior opposite Zack La Cavera recorded a career high 23 kills, hitting .465, while adding five digs and two blocks. Sophomore outside hitter Tamir Hershko added 16 kills while hitting .600.
Brinkley, La Cavera and Hershko are three of the best players in the country at their own positions and they are joined in the starting lineup by junior outside hitter Kyle Russell, sophomore middle blocker Andrew Benz, junior middle blocker Jason Agopian and sophomore setter Michael Saeta. This talented and young squad is led from the back by its star libero Brinkley and the Gauchos will have to do their best to keep the ball away from him.
“Last time we had game two in the bag, and then we made errors and gave it to them,” Seif said. “We served their libero the majority of the time last time, but we are going to make sure to keep our serves on their outside hitters this time around.”
UCSB showed that it could battle with UCI last time they played in the second set when the Gauchos took a 24-21 lead but squandered it, ultimately losing the game 31-29 and losing the match 3-0. If Santa Barbara can play the way they did for the first 45 points of the second game against UCI, then they have a chance at competing in tonight’s game.
“If we are passing really well then it opens up everything,” Delson said. “It keeps teams guessing and then you have the upper hand.”
Redshirt senior Weston Nielson is expected to be back in the starting lineup after missing the last two matches with an injury. Seif will be looking to him and middle blockers junior Ryan Hardy and senior Jake Staahl for his main attacking options while freshman libero Hayden Boehle will have to be on his game tonight in order to give his team an opportunity to spread the ball around to its strong core of hitters.
Tonight’s match begins at 7 p.m. at Rob Gym.