In a season that began with low expectations from the public, the UCSB women’s volleyball team made believers out of everyone, toppling national power after national power en route to its third appearance in the Elite Eight in the last four seasons and an impressive 25-8 final record.
The Gauchos opened their season in San Diego with an ugly, yet impressive win over #10 Arizona, and then went on to post victories in four of their next five matches. But Santa Barbara could not continue its winning ways forever. Two of the next three matches would pit the team against #7 Colorado State and #2 Hawai’i, and UCSB could not muster a win in either match.
However, on Sept. 22, the entire course of the Gauchos’ season changed. On consecutive nights, Santa Barbara knocked off arch rivals #6 Long Beach State and #16 Pacific. The weekend sweep at the Thunderdome was the first back-to-back wins UCSB had notched against its two greatest league foes since 1994.
“Those two matches were what really got us going this season,” junior setter Brooke Rundle said. “Beating either of those teams by themselves is huge, but to beat them back-to-back was even sweeter.”
Santa Barbara hit another bump in the road on Sept. 30 when unranked, but much improved Utah State swept the Gauchos in three games. UCSB would rebound and defeat #22 Loyola Marymount and #5 Pepperdine in the following week to put them back on track. One weekend later Santa Barbara dropped a match to #14 UOP in three straight, but then traveled to the Pyramid and again beat #19 Long Beach State in five games.
On Oct. 24 in the Thunderdome, USC shocked all in attendance by coming back from a two-games-to-none deficit to pull out a five-game victory and hand the Gauchos their first home loss of the season. Santa Barbara then went on its longest winning streak of the season, notching victories over #19 Utah State, #16 Santa Clara, and two wins over Central Coast rival Cal Poly in seven days as they amassed eight straight wins.
The Gauchos dropped a meaningless match at the end of the season to #16 Brigham Young University, but received a bid to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. After dispatching a pesky Texas-San Antonio squad in three games in the first round, Santa Barbara prepared for its battle with #19 Stanford. The Cardinal had knocked UCSB out of the tournament two of the last three years, and the Gauchos wanted some retribution. Behind steady offense and some outstanding individual performances by Rundle and junior outside hitter Brieanna Lampe, Santa Barbara outlasted the Farm and prevailed in an unbelievable 9-15, 16-14, 15-8, 14-16, 16-14 victory.
The emotion after the Stanford match was too much for even Head Coach Kathy Gregory, who has been at the helm of Gaucho women’s volleyball for 26 seasons. After the win, she had this to say: “In 26 years, I have never been involved in such an exciting, tension-filled match … Does this say what kind of heart and soul our team has? You bet it does.”
Santa Barbara would dethrone another team yet, as it dispatched #9 Minnesota in the third round. But its Cinderella run would stop one match short of the Final Four, as Hawai’i proved too strong and sent the Gauchos packing.
UCSB could retain all six starters next season if freshman middle blocker Simone Kuhn can arrange to return from Switzerland for a second year. Kuhn, along with leading offensive threat sophomore middle blocker Danielle Bauer and a much-improved Brieanna Lampe, Santa Barbara will again be looking towards its first ever date with the Final Four. Add to that mix of players the tremendous ball control and intelligence of sophomore outside hitter Brooke Niles and the consistent play of sophomore outside hitter Courtney Guerra, and the Gauchos could possibly be a top five team all season long.
Rundle, who was named a Second Team AVCA All-American for her efforts this season, put it best when she said: “We had a terrific year, and no one on our team has any regrets. But we all know that there is unfinished business yet, and we can’t take care of that until we make it to the Final Four.”