The preseason is now officially over for the #8 UCSB women’s volleyball team, and the real season can now begin.

Santa Barbara (28-2 overall) has advanced to the NCAA Tournament for a national record 22nd consecutive year and is now ready to make its first ever appearance in the tournament’s Final Four. Only Stanford, University of the Pacific and Florida can boast that they have been to every NCAA Tournament.

“This team knows what the NCAAs are all about,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “They are not going to take any team for granted. Playing at home is no guarantee that we are going to win, and our girls know that.”

Santa Barbara advanced to this year’s tournament for the first time by virtue of getting an automatic bid for winning the Big West Championship. Every other time UCSB had received an invitation to play in the field of 64, it has been by an at-large bid.

The Gauchos, despite receiving the #8 seed in the tournament, could not have received a tougher draw from the selection committee. In all likelihood, Santa Barbara will have to defeat Fresno State, Santa Clara, Pepperdine and then USC in order to advance to their first ever Final Four appearance.

But before the Gauchos can look ahead to avenge their only two losses of the season against Pepperdine and USC, they will first have to defeat a very tough Fresno State team in the first round on Friday night in the Thunderdome.

Although the Gauchos dispatched the Bulldogs earlier this season at the Fresno State Invitational Tournament in September, they know that taking their opponent lightly would be a tragic mistake, especially after last year’s shocking first round upset by the University of San Diego.

“We are not going to go into this match thinking that we should win,” senior outside hitter Courtney Guerra said. “Every team that we are going to play in this tournament will have a chance to beat us. We are not going to take any opponent lightly.”

Having had a chance to look at additional game film of the Bulldogs this week, senior Brooke Niles thinks that the Gauchos have a good chance of winning, especially if they can continue with their signature defense and help their offense catch fire.

“We need to pass well and play good defense against this team,” Niles said. “They all have tough serves and they are a good defensive team. Our offense just needs to pick it up a notch.”

Gregory agreed with her first team All-Big West setter.

“Fresno State is very well rounded and they have exceptional ball control,” Gregory said. “They are a top defensive team. They don’t make any mistakes. It is going to be a good matchup.”

A win on Friday night would not only move the Gauchos into the second round of the tournament against the winner of the Santa Clara vs. Cal game, but it would also give Gregory the 700th win of her illustrious career.

Despite the excitement surrounding the tournament in Santa Barbara this year, one can not help but look back at last year’s shocking first round defeat at the hands of San Diego after leading two games to nothing.

To Gregory, the painful loss is a distant memory and she believes that it will help serve as motivation for her team to play better.

“That match serves as motivation for us,” Gregory said. “We didn’t finish [San Diego] off in that match when we had a chance. We know now that even if we go up 2-0, we need to put the other team away.”