The UCSB men’s volleyball team wants to shed the Cinderella tag to this year’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs. Luck played no part in helping the Gauchos make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. Santa Barbara did not dethrone perennial powerhouse UCLA by chance.
The Gauchos are on a crusade to win the National Championship. They have gone too far to turn back now.
But when there is so much at stake for the Gauchos, why do they vow they have nothing to lose, and everything to gain?
“We haven’t made the playoffs in awhile,” junior outside hitter Keith Busam said. “That doesn’t seem to faze this team though.”
The No. 4 Gauchos are primed to take on No. 2 Hawaii tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Final Four of the MPSF at Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse. Santa Barbara (18-10, 12-10 in the MPSF) is coming off a shocking quarterfinal victory over then-No. 3 UCLA in a grueling five-game match at Pauley Pavilion. Santa Barbara has won two straight matches and is arguably playing its best volleyball of the season. Thanks to a trio of seniors, outside hitter Andy Rivera, opposite Ben Koski and setter Britt Galang, the Gauchos are ready to bring a championship home to Santa Barbara.
“Since we have nothing to lose, we are a dangerous team,” Rivera said. “We are going to prepare the way we always do [for Hawaii].”
With its win over UCLA on Saturday, UCSB leaped three spots in the national rankings to number four. Ironically though, the Gauchos hold the sixth seed in the MPSF playoffs. UCSB is 1-1 on the year against the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii defeated Long Beach State by a score of 3-0 in their quarterfinal match on Saturday.
The Gauchos will come at Hawaii with quickness, experience and intensity. Rivera posted his best game of the season against UCLA, garnering 30 kills and rallying the troops to a come-from-behind victory. Junior outside hitter Jan Carlo Zegarra has been an offensive weapon and stellar on defense. Diving on the hardwood, Zegarra tallied 12 digs against the Bruins. Sophomore middle blocker Justin Adams has been consistent all year long for Santa Barbara. Registering 10 kills and just two errors, Adams hit .381 and had two solo blocks.
After handing LBSU a punishing loss, the Rainbow Warriors are also playing some of their best volleyball of the year. Junior outside hitter Eyal Zimet was named MPSF player of the week for his work against the 49ers. Zimet hit .733 and 12 kills on just 15 swings. The Rainbow Warriors are led, though, by junior outside hitter and 2001 Player of the Year Costas Theocharidis, who is averaging 5.51 kills per game this season and is tops in the MPSF with 30 aces. Also, senior libero Vernon Podlewski, a transfer student from Santa Barbara City College, was named to the All-MPSF Second Team, along with senior middle blocker Dejan Miladinovic.
“They’ve got good hitters at every single position and they don’t have too many weaknesses offensively,” Busam said. “We need to expose the fact that they are a couple of steps slower than we are.”
Tonight’s winner will take on the winner of the other semi-final game between No. 1 Pepperdine and No. 3 BYU on April 27. The winner is given an automatic bid to the National Championship Tournament.
The MPSF will likely receive an at-large bid since the conference is stacked with talent. A win against Hawaii would probably assure the Gauchos a place in the National Championship playoffs.