The old saying “There’s no place like home,” held true for the UCSB women’s volleyball team this weekend.
The Gauchos hosted their home opener Friday against Riverside, and then Saturday played host to Cal State Fullerton, after starting their season with eight very tough nonleague matches and nine consecutive matches away from the cozy confines of the Thunderdome.
Gauchos Head Coach Kathy Gregory intentionally scheduled some very tough nonleague matches in order to test her players’ resolve before league play started and the distractions of school set in.
“I like playing a tough preseason schedule,” Gregory said. “We were able to get a few significant wins, and we also had a few setbacks but all in all I think it will definitely benefit us in the long run to already have faced some tough competition and some hostile crowds.”
For the first time in weeks, hostile crowds and tough competition were two things that the Gauchos did not have to worry about this weekend. They made short work of Riverside on Friday in three straight games 30-24, 30-23, 30-18, then on Saturday they doubled their pleasure by taking care of an outmatched Cal State Fullerton 30-17, 30-25, 30-16.
Both games took just slightly over an hour and a half and Gregory was pleased by the attendance and crowd’s intensity on Friday, calling it “a very pleasant surprise.”
Whether it was finally playing at home or the tough preseason schedule, the #15 ranked Gauchos looked good. On the weekend there were six double-digit kill performances and six players swinging for an over-.400 hitting percentage.
Both victories included a very balanced Gaucho attack, as well as big contributions from senior middle blocker Francina Edmonds. After a somewhat frustrating preseason, hitting only .199 through the first 9 matches, Edmonds dropped a bomb on the Highlander and Titan defenses. She pounded home 10 kills and only one error for a .500 clip against Riverside on Friday, and then Saturday dropped 16 kills with a .440 hitting percentage Fullerton.
“Not only is it great to be back at home, but it also feels good to start Big West play,” Edmonds said Saturday. “We are defending [Big West] champs and we take a lot of pride in that. I think we are definitely ready to step up for the rest of this schedule.”
Edmonds wasn’t the only veteran coming through for the Gauchos. Sophomore middle blocker Megan Blackshire continued with her breakthrough season, hitting for a blistering .682 hitting percentage on Saturday and finishing with 27 kills on the weekend. With performances like that, Blackshire is making a very strong case for All-League consideration.
Freshman outside hitter Janine Sandell also turned in a very impressive performance, playing her first games in the Thunderdome.
“It was a lot, definitely a lot of fun playing in front of people you know and a crowd that is cheering for you,” Sandell said.
Sandell gave the crowd something to cheer about the entire weekend. She put down 22 kills with a .463 hitting percentage for the weekend, displaying a perfect variety of power hitting and timely soft shots. Both Edmonds and Sandell were very complimentary of their teammates’ passing skills.
“Volleyball is the ultimate team sport,” Edmonds said. “If the first and second contacts aren’t good there is no way I can hope to have a good swing at the third ball. Erika and Kristen are doing an awesome job getting the ball to Mari. I definitely give a lot of credit to them.”
Perhaps the most suspenseful moment of the weekend came late in the third game on Saturday, as Edmonds went back to server with UCSB leading 21-11. Edmonds uses a very deep float serve that she hits nearly from the bleachers. As she was backing up she knocked down a little girl who was going back to her seat.
The crowd went silent as Edmonds turned to help her up. Fortunately, all was well as the little one was fine and returned to her seat with only a bruised ego. Edmonds then calmly turned and served up an ace laughing all the way back to the service line, this time being a little more cautious while backing up.