The #24 UCSB women’s volleyball team is hot, and this weekend is the perfect time to see just where the Gauchos stand now that they are officially back on track.

Santa Barbara has now won four matches in a row and is two games over .500 for the first time this season. This weekend’s home games pit UCSB against Big West rivals Irvine on Friday night and Long Beach State on Saturday night.

“Our team is a little bit more confident,” UCSB Assistant Coach Mike Fitzgerald said. “The team is more used to the rally scoring and to each other now, and we are starting to score some points that we weren’t at the beginning of the year. This has allowed us to put more pressure on the other team.”

The Gauchos will have to be wary Friday night against Irvine. Although Irvine is unranked, the new rally-scoring format makes it a dangerous squad.

After facing the Anteaters, Santa Barbara will then take on the top-ranked team in the country, Long Beach State. Long Beach has already defeated UCSB once this season at the Pyramid, where it squeaked out a five-game victory, 23-30, 30-26, 30-24, 22-30 and 8-15. In that match junior middle blocker Danielle Bauer was huge for the Gauchos, tallying 23 kills with just one error in 49 attempts.

“My back row attack was working really well the last time we played them,” Bauer said. “I think we all like playing against Long Beach, and we always seem to play better against them.”

In order to have a chance on Saturday, the Gauchos will need to contain a host of 49er players. The two main guns for LBSU are the 6’7″ Tayyeba Haneef and Cheryl Weaver. Both players trained with the National Team last summer in Colorado Springs and are hoping to compete for spots on the 2004 Olympic Team.

“Our defense wasn’t as strong the last time we played them,” junior outside hitter/setter Brooke Niles said. “We know their tendencies a little bit better now that we have played them already this year, and we will have a better read on them. We know they are going to get their kills. We don’t expect to stop them, we just want to contain them enough to win.”

A critical decision for the Gauchos is whether or not to play junior outside hitter Courtney Guerra. Guerra injured her wrist in a non-volleyball-related incident on Monday, and the UCSB coaches have said there is a 20 to 30 percent chance she will see action this weekend.

With or without Guerra, the Gauchos like their chances against Irvine and Long Beach in the Thunderdome.

“We definitely have an advantage this time around because we are going to be playing at home,” Bauer said. “We have an awesome home crowd and it is always exciting for us to play in front of them. Long Beach-Santa Barbara is always a great game, and I think everyone is expecting a long, tough match.”