Defense has been the calling card of the UCSB women’s volleyball Head Coach Kathy Gregory since her illustrious playing career. When Gregory moved into coaching, she continued to emphasize the importance of team defense. Friday night in the Thunderdome, the #21 ranked Gauchos showed why such an over-looked skill is still so important: it wins matches.
Santa Barbara (13-10, 11-3), currently in third place in the Big West, dug Central Coast rival Cal Poly off of the court en route to a three game shellacking. When the dust cleared, the Gauchos had tallied 26 more digs than the Mustangs (14-7, 8-6) and walked away with a 30-23, 30-22, 30-26 victory.
“Kathy [Gregory] has been talking about us playing better defense in practice,” junior outside hitter Courtney Guerra said. “Tonight we finally made it happen. That is what won this match for us.”
The opening frame Friday night was marked by Cal Poly mistakes and tremendous Gaucho defense. The Mustangs miscued on six serves in the first game. Combine that with nine digs from All-American setter, senior Brooke Rundle, in the first game alone, and the result was a 30-23 blowout.
Game two was much of the same, as Santa Barbara outplayed the Mustangs with stingy defense and effective hitting. Senior middle blocker Brieanna Lampe came alive in the second game and helped spark the Gauchos’ offense.
“That was some of the best defense I have ever seen from our team,” Lampe said. “We didn’t have a lot of blocks, but I thought our block was in a good place to help us get some balls up that we haven’t been getting up lately.”
The final game was the most compelling of the three by far. UCSB opened a commanding 20-13 lead, but the Mustangs refused to go quietly as they raced back into contention by scoring seven of the next eight points. With the game on the line, Santa Barbara continued to look for key put-aways from outside hitters Guerra and sophomore Erica Menzel. Both delivered for the Gauchos.
However, on the last play of the match, junior outside hitter Brook Niles took matters into her own hands and dumped the ball over the net for the most unexpected kill of the evening. No Mustang defender even made a move for the ball.
“I was trying to think about who they wouldn’t be expecting me to set,” Niles said of her decision. “I hadn’t dumped in a while and I thought that it would be a good opportunity to get a kill.”
The most telling statistic of the night was that of total team blocks. Cal Poly had a total of nine blocks while Santa Barbara could only produce one. However, in the end it was the defense that won the match for the Gauchos. If UCSB has any idea at all of making a run in the NCAA Tournament, it will need more defensive nights like Friday; and that is something that Gregory, and the rest of her team, would not mind seeing at all.
“When we get going defensively, there aren’t many teams that can hang with us,” Niles said. “We have good players at every position, and we work on defense a lot in practice. It frustrates a lot of teams when we dig a lot of balls, and that is something that we could use a little more of.”