Reeling from a season of disappointment, the UCSB women’s volleyball team ended 2001 with the its earliest exit from the NCAA Tournament since 1993. No wonder there were more questions than answers about this year’s Gauchos.
Any lingering questions have been answered this year.
No. 10 Santa Barbara bolted out of the gate, boasting a perfect record of 11-0 overall and 2-0 in the Big West. The only question that remains for the Gauchos is what to pack for their trip to New Orleans in late December for the NCAA Final Four.
“We knew that we would be good,” UCSB Associate Head Coach Liz Towne-Gilbert said.
Good? “Phenomenal,” “exciting” and “electric” would be better words to describe this group of women and the things that they are doing on the volleyball court.
Not only has Santa Barbara not lost a single match, but the squad also struts a 33-2 record for games. On top of that, Santa Barbara showcased three of the first four Big West Players of the Week: senior setter and All-American candidate Brooke Niles, senior middle blocker Danielle Bauer and junior outside hitter Erica Menzel. Santa Barbara did not have three Players of the Week for all of last year.
Santa Barbara’s success has been realized against teams of weaker caliber. UCSB traditionally plays one of the toughest preseason schedules in the country, and this year has been no different. Four of its first 11 opponents have been ranked in the top 25 this year, and neither of the two games the Gauchos have dropped thus far were surrendered in any of those four matches.
“We have really come together as a team,” sophomore middle blocker Niki Carroll said about this year’s squad. “We are all friends on and off of the court, and that has helped us to play better on the court.”
Even though Towne-Gilbert said the team had a feeling that it would be good, it is hard to believe anyone could have imagined it would be this good – especially when it started the season ranked as low as 20th in the USA Today/ American Volleyball Coaches Association poll.
“We played well in the first tournament of the year in San Diego,” sophomore defensive specialist Kristin Nelson said. “But when we beat Wisconsin at the Duke tournament, that was when we all looked at each other and knew that we were going to be one of the best teams in the country this year.”
Even with all of this early season success, the Gauchos know that it will mean nothing if they cannot stay focused and continue to produce on the court this year.
“We have played well so far, but we are not even close to our potential,” Carroll said.
A big test for the Gauchos will come this weekend when they travel to the Pyramid to take on Big West rival and national powerhouse Long Beach State. The No. 6 49ers are not as dominant this year as they have been in the past, but LBSU Head Coach Brian Gimmillaro always has his team ready to play against the Gauchos.
A big question mark for the Gauchos this weekend will be the health of Niles, who was injured against University of the Pacific last weekend. Niles was on crutches Tuesday, and her status is listed as day-to-day.
“We know that we may not have Brooke in there this weekend,” Carroll said, “but we have played this well all season as a team, and that is what we intend to do this weekend against Long Beach.”