You wouldn’t think that at 16-0 and having a No. 7 ranking in the nation that the UCSB women’s volleyball team would have a problem, but it does.
Santa Barbara may be winning, but it has been winning ugly as of late, and some of the coaches and players are starting to feel a little concerned.
Even though the Gauchos (16-0 overall, 6-0 in the Big West) dispatched Loyola Marymount (11-4 overall, 2-0 in the West Coast Conference) in four games last night in the Thunderdome, the tone from many in the Santa Barbara camp after the match was not overly positive.
“I think we may be feeling the pressure,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “We are expected to win every time that we step on the floor, and that is something that we need to learn to deal with and play through.”
Junior outside hitter Erica Menzel echoed her coach’s sentiments.
“Sure, we are feeling the pressure to win,” she said. “We are fired up when we come out of the locker room, but I think it hits us when we step on the floor that we are expected to win in three every night.”
Even though the Gauchos have struggled to dominate their matches lately, it is a problem that UCSB is happy to have. Last season, Santa Barbara limped to one of its worst seasons in school history. When the season ended and the smoke cleared, the Gauchos had amassed a dismal record of 17-15 and was handed its earliest exit from the NCAA Tournament since 1993. This season, UCSB has different plans.
When asked if this year’s problem of not putting teams away fast enough was comparable to last season’s problem of not being able to win matches at all, Menzel laughed and said, “I’ll take this problem any day.”
The standards held at UCSB for the volleyball program are some of the highest in the nation. In her 27 years at the helm of the Gauchos’ program, Gregory has guided her team to the postseason tournament every year, something that only three other Division I volleyball programs can claim.
It is also fair to note that anything below a top 15 national ranking is considered a disappointment. With that being said, it is easier to understand why there are rumblings in the Gaucho program despite the apparent success.
Tuesday night, Santa Barbara squared off against the Lions, and the home squad stumbled out of the gate. The Gauchos experienced early passing problems and struggled to establish a clean offensive rhythm, dropping the opening frame 30-28. The game one loss was the first of the year for UCSB in the Thunderdome.
After the first game, the passing improved and senior setter Brooke Niles was able to get more of her hitters involved, especially freshman sensation Megan Blackshire. The 6’0″ middle blocker dominated the net all night long, amassing an impressive 11 kills with a .429 hitting percentage and adding five blocks.
“It is always nice to get more sets,” Blackshire said, trying to downplay her sterling game. “But all that I care about is contributing, and that is what I got a chance to do tonight.”
Despite her team’s admittedly lackluster performance in the victory, Gregory remained excited about the play of her freshman middle blocker.
“She has done an outstanding job for us this year,” Gregory said. “She sure doesn’t play like a freshman.”