Mark it down. It is now official.
The #7 UCSB women’s volleyball team wrapped up its first ever outright Big West Conference Championship by disposing of league bottom-dwellers UC Riverside and Cal State Fullerton on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
The Gauchos have been near perfect all season long, compiling a nearly unblemished 26-1 record. Santa Barbara also sports a 16-0 record in the Big West. Toss in a school-record 23 consecutive victories to start off the season and it is easy to understand why this weekend’s victories were more of a formality than anything else.
“It is good because now we know that we have won the league and we don’t have to think about it anymore,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “That was one of our goals for the season, and now we have accomplished it so we can direct all of our focus on our preparation for the NCAAs.”
On Friday night, the Gauchos shellacked Riverside 30-16, 30-23, 30-16 in just 80 minutes to secure at least a share of the conference crown. Santa Barbara came back Saturday night and walked through its coronation with a 30-20, 30-26, 30-23 victory over Cal State Fullerton.
“This weekend was a good test for us,” senior setter Brooke Niles said. “We knew that we would win if we played our game, but we challenged ourselves with some different lineups and got everyone a chance to play. It was a great weekend.”
UCSB played so well against the Highlanders that Gregory was able to clear her bench and get everyone involved in the match. Thirteen Gaucho players got a chance to step onto the court Friday night, but none were more impressive than junior outside hitter Francina Edmonds. Edmonds, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., was the only Gaucho with double-digit kills and enjoyed the best hitting percentage on the team with 11 and .429, respectively.
Sophomore libero Kristen Nelson, junior outside hitter Erica Menzel and Niles all played well on Friday. Menzel recorded a match-high 16 digs, Nelson notched 13 digs, and Niles added 13 scoops of her own.
On Saturday evening, a night that Gaucho fans have waited many years to see, Gregory had winning the match first on her priority list, and getting time on the court for as many players as possible a close second.
“Getting everyone in was a top priority,” Gregory said. “We really wanted to get Niki [Carroll] and Amy [Sarkaria] some playing time because we are going to need them in the NCAAs. They played very well.”
After winning the first game handily with her standard lineup, Gregory went to her bench in an effort to get some players time on the floor. Gregory, a member of the Volleyball Hall of Fame, wanted to get some playing time for all of her key reserves, who will undoubtedly prove to play a big part in the Gauchos’ run to the Final Four.
Sophomores middle blocker Carroll and outside hitter Sarkaria both had big matches on Saturday. Carroll only played in one game but knocked home four kills to go with her impressive .571 hitting percentage. Sarkaria played in two games and had three kills and a .375 hitting percentage.
With a pair of wins this weekend on the road against the University of the Pacific and Cal State Northridge, UCSB would run the table on conference opponents. That would be just one more feather to stick in their already heavy cap.
“Going undefeated in league would mean a lot to us,” freshman middle blocker Megan Blackshire said. “This is something that we have worked really hard for, and it is something that we want to do for Kathy because we have never done it before.”