It has been tabbed as the “Battle of the Beach,” and the “Biggest Match in UCSB History.”
A matchup of national and Big West powerhouses #5 UCSB and #7 Long Beach State will be on display tonight at 7 in the Thunderdome. The game should be nothing short of a heavyweight bout, worthy of the Don King-style hype.
“When you play Long Beach, and a team of their caliber, it is always a special match,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “We know that a lot of what people are saying is just hype, but that is good.”
Despite all of the attention here in Santa Barbara given to the Gauchos (19-0, 9-0 in the Big West) versus 49ers (18-1, 7-1) matchup, the hype surrounding the rivalry has been downplayed by almost everyone in Long Beach, including its Head Coach Brian Gimmillarro.
“We have never treated this match as a rivalry match,” Gimmillarro said on Wednesday. “I think back to some of the matches that we have had with Stanford and Hawaii, some championship matches, and I think that makes it hard for us to think of this match as our big rivalry.”
Gimmillarro’s comments were received by the Santa Barbara players and coaching staff with distinctly different tones.
“In a way he is a little bit right,” Gregory said. “It is tough to define just what makes a rivalry. It may be a rivalry for us but not for them. That is just the way things go sometimes.”
Senior outside hitter Courtney Guerra, who will be playing in her final match against Long Beach, barring a playoff battle, had a slightly different tone than her coach.
“If it is not such a big rivalry, then why did they lose to us?” Guerra said.
No matter whether tonight’s match is a “rivalry” match or not, there is one thing that is for sure. This will be the last regular season matchup between these two teams for the seniors.
“I guess I don’t really think about it,” senior setter Brooke Niles said.
“It is a very melancholy feeling,” Guerra added. “We are just excited about having an exciting game in front of our home fans in the Thunderdome.”
The Thunderdome has been gaining increasing national notoriety as the toughest place to play in college volleyball in recent years. In 2000, the Gauchos knocked off a very good Stanford team in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a match that was marked as much by the tremendous play as by the boisterous fans in attendance.
“After having played at some other schools this year, it is now clear to me that the Thunderdome is the most difficult place to play in the country,” Stanford women’s volleyball Assistant Coach Jason Mansfield said. “The fans are right on top of the players and they don’t stop harassing you all night long.”
Gimmillarro knows that the fans and the hecklers will be out in force tonight, but he seems to almost relish the added challenge.
“As long as the environment is safe for the players,” Gimmillarro said, “then I have no problem with any of it. I think that women deserve the same treatment as men get at sporting events. We like playing there.”
Should Santa Barbara win tonight and gain a commanding two game lead in the Big West standings, Coach Gimmillarro and his team will be very grateful that they won’t have to return to the Thunderdome until next year.