The UCSB men’s volleyball team set lofty goals at the beginning of the 2002 season. Aside from individual goals, the Gauchos went into the season vowing to make the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs. The goal was admirable considering Santa Barbara had not managed the feat in four seasons and none of this year’s Gauchos had tasted the playoff fever before.
The Gauchos exceeded their goals this season and, in the process, masterfully created one of the most memorable seasons in Santa Barbara history.
“I think our season was very successful,” senior outside hitter Andy Rivera said. “I think we kept raising the bar as the season went on and expected more and more out of ourselves.”
UCSB finished the season with a Final Four loss to No. 2 Hawaii at Firestone Fieldhouse on April 25 in Malibu. The Gauchos tallied an 18-11 record, good enough for sixth place in the rugged MPSF and the fourth nationally. While the loss to Hawaii was tough to swallow, the Gauchos know who guided the team to victory so many times.
“I just feel for the seniors since those guys have done so much for the program,” freshman libero Aaron Mansfield said. “They were a big reason for this team’s success this season, and I can’t thank them enough.”
In a 2002 season that witnessed more ups and downs than a New York City elevator attendant, the Gauchos were capable, on any given night, to play better than any team in the country.
On April 20, when Santa Barbara went into Pauley Pavilion and tried to upset No. 3 UCLA in the first round of the playoffs, the Gauchos were stuck on the garage level in an elevator and time running their season out. The Bruins jumped out to a 2-0 lead and looked well on their way to appearing in yet another Final Four. UCSB could have laid down and called it a season.
The Gauchos didn’t buckle under pressure. Santa Barbara’s come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Bruins sent the magical glass elevator shooting out the building, in true Willy Wonka fashion.
“I think it was big for us to beat UCLA because of the rivalry,” Rivera said.
Rivera lit the torch for the Gauchos all season long and sparked a light when the squad needed the fire. The Eagle Rock native from Los Angeles tantalized opponents all season long with his uncanny ability to laser a ball home for a kill. Rivera, who stands at just 6’2” off the hardwood, chuckles at the rival MPSF outside hitters that pose 6’8” mountains on the other side of the net. The three-year starter recorded a team-high 4.02 kills per game this year and consistently provided intensity on the defensive end.
Santa Barbara also strove for excellence behind senior setter Britt Galang and senior opposite Ben Koski. Koski pounded away on would-be blockers, averaging 3.82 kills per game which paid off for All-MPSF Third Team honors. Galang quarterbacked the club by managing the plays on the floor and led the team with 13.63 assists per game. With three senior starters, the leadership positions were easy to hand out for the Gauchos.
“We had joint leadership this year,” junior middle blocker Anders Bengtsson said. “One of our goals was to stick together as a team and we did that this year.”
Although five seniors depart for graduation, the Gauchos are optimistic about 2003. Santa Barbara returns four starters and a plethora of young talent.
UCSB will welcome back middle blockers sophomore Justin Adams and freshman Michael Kennedy, whose imposing demeanor raided opponents with lightening quick kills and exquisite finesse. Mansfield also returns to help lead the dig compartment. Mansfield and Adams were honored with Third Team All-MPSF for their dominance in 2002.
The diamond in the rough though, is returning junior outside hitter Jan Carlo Zegarra. This gem ruled the service line with his Rivera-like strikes. Zegarra found his niche though, on defense. Diving for loose balls and pumping up his teammates, Zegarra posted 1.73 digs per game.
The Gauchos are also excited about the return of Bengtsson and junior outside hitter Keith Busam.
“I’m looking forward to next year,” Bengtsson said. “We have a good recruiting class and great people coming from below.”