Victory was within reach. It was so close, you could see it through senior outside hitter Andy Rivera’s eyes, in the grain on the hardwood and in the frenzied gasps of 765 spectators at Rob Gym.
What could have been, and what should have been, for the UCSB men’s volleyball team on Saturday was seemingly stolen from under the players’feet.
What was shaping up to be the Gauchos’ biggest win of the season improbably turned out to be an emotional and bittersweet loss on Saturday night against No. 1 Pepperdine (23-4, 18-2 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) by a score of 30-27, 19-30, 30-28, 25-30 and 9-15.
After jumping out to a fast start in the match and having a 2-1 lead over Pepperdine, UCSB knew the fourth game was crucial to secure a win. Behind the athletic brilliance of Rivera and junior outside hitter Jan Carlo Zegarra, No. 6 UCSB (16-9, 10-9 MPSF) marched out to a commanding 16-7 lead in the fourth game. UCSB seemed ripe for an upset and ready to end the Waves’ 10-match wining streak. The script had been written for a fabulous and effortless winning finale for the Gauchos.
Then tragedy struck.
Pepperdine (23-4, 18-2) rallied back in the fourth game to tie up the score 24-24 because of the Gauchos’ errors and mental mishaps. The game turned into a race and the score of 30 was the finish line. UCSB lost its composure and tripped before it could reach the finish line as the Waves went on to win the game 30-25 and shift the momentum back onto their side of the net.
“We felt like we got a little comfortable with the lead,” senior setter Britt Galang said.
In their first five-game match of the regular season, the Gauchos couldn’t finish what they had worked so fiercely to construct. A team that had victory within its grasp would not find a handle in crunch time. It was as if fate itself had redirected the course of the game, while an awestruck Santa Barbara squad was left helplessly alone to watch the game slip away.
“I didn’t even know what happened,” freshman libero Aaron Mansfield said. “I was shocked because I didn’t realize they came back so fast.”
Rivera and Zegarra torched the Waves for 23 and 16 kills, respectively, in the losing effort. Rivera ended the match by hitting .405, which was good enough for the top spot on the team. Galang posted a match-high 63 assists while adding 10 digs for the defensive cause.
As a team, the Gauchos out-hit their opponent with 72 kills, compared to Pepperdine’s 68 put-aways. The catalyst for Santa Barbara seemed to be the 40 hitting errors that decreased its hitting percentage to a measly .184 in contrast to the Wave’s strong showing of .266.
Pepperdine had four players in double-digit kill totals. Sophomore outside hitter Fred Winters led the way with 18 kills for the Waves. Junior middle blocker Brad Keenan, who connected on .526 percent of his shots and added 13 kills, may have been the most costly Gauchos killer on Saturday night, though.
The Gauchos will tackle Long Beach State on Thursday at 7 p.m. for Senior Night in Rob Gym. UCSB will need a victory to maintain its position in the MPSF standings. With playoffs lurking, the Gauchos know that Saturday night’s loss was the last of its kind and are confident in their current play.
“I’m not worried,” Mansfield said about the loss to Pepperdine. “We can play with anyone. We have a good feeling right now.”