After starting Mountain Pacific Sports Federation play 1-4, things don’t get any easier for the UCSB men’s volleyball team (3-7, 1-4). Tonight, the top team in the land, #1 Irvine (11-1, 4-1), travels to Santa Barbara to confront the Gauchos at Rob Gym at 7.
The Anteaters enter tonight’s match against Santa Barbara ranked #1 for the first time in school history due in large part to the best start in school history, winning their first 10 matches before a setback from 2002 national champion Hawaii on Friday. UCI bounced back to defeated Hawaii the next night to improve to 11-1.
“They’re a good team, so it will be a real big challenge for us,” UCSB Head Coach Ken Preston said. “We played them tough in the collegiate, but we beat UOP in the collegiate too, so it’s a whole new ballgame.”
In their 15-year existence, Irvine had never been ranked higher than #7, which they were at during the middle of last year. The Anteaters are loaded with juniors, including outside hitters Jimmy Pelzel and Spencer Bemus. Pelzel had 40 kills over the weekend against Hawaii, and Bemus follower with 21.
Irvine also relies on the strong setting of junior David Kniffin, who had 90 assists in the two games against Hawaii. Irvine made quick work of Hawaii last Saturday defeating them in three games, 30-20, 30-26, 30-25. UCI’s biggest asset may stem from experience.
“Irvine is a contrast to us in that they have older players,” senior outside hitter Keith Busam said. “They don’t make mistakes and they take care of the ball when it’s on their side of the net.”
Santa Barbara enters the game having lost four of its last five matches, three of those coming at the hands of MPSF opponents. The recent defeats to Stanford and Pacific at home were particularly painful for the Gauchos.
“We’re discouraged because we didn’t play as good as we possibly could have; we had our chances just keep plugging away,” Preston said.
The young Gauchos keep gaining more experience throughout the year. Freshman setter Bart Kowalski is the latest player to show signs of future stardom as evinced by his 67 assists against Stanford on Saturday.
“Bart played a really good game,” Preston said. “He’s going to get more opportunities to play.”
Since his impressive play at USC, Busam has led UCSB in the stat box, registering 43 kills in three games. The Gauchos have shown they have the talent to compete with anyone, but are still looking for the level of consistency that Irvine has shown this year.
“Irvine is very consistent and doesn’t make physical mistakes,” sophomore libero Aaron Mansfield said. “They aren’t great athletes, but they are good volleyball players.”