Irvine’s Crawford Hall Gym and the Pyramid in Long Beach have not been kind to Big West opponents this season.
The No. 19 Gauchos (10-5, 6-1 in the Big West) are venturing into the venues that have left conference foes winless in order to establish distance between themselves and the other two teams bunched at the top of the league. Santa Barbara will travel to Irvine (15-4, 6-1 in the Big West) Friday night at 7, and will make a stop at Long Beach State (10-4, 5-2 in the Big West) Saturday evening at 7:30.
The Anteaters and 49ers duked it out last Saturday night with Irvine taking the match in five games, maintaining a tie with the Gauchos for first place. Both teams received votes in the national top 25 polls last week.
“This is a very special Irvine team,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “[UCI junior outside hitter] Kelly Wing is definitely the premier player in the league.”
Wing, who has copped Big West Player of the Week honors three times already this season, set an Anteater record with 35 kills against the 49ers last weekend, to go along with 12 digs and five block assists.
“Wing does everything out there. She’s their go-to player,” Gregory said. “If she can have 35 kills against Long Beach’s blocking, she is very capable of putting up 35 kills against us.”
49er freshmen middle blockers Mariko Crum and Natalie Uhart lead the team in blocks per game and have helped the Beach hold its opponents to a .185 hitting percentage, the second-lowest mark in the conference compared to the Gauchos second-worst opponent’s tally of .229. Santa Barbara and Long Beach have locked horns 77 times since 1965 with the 49ers getting the best of the Gauchos. But UCSB has taken four of the last six contests, including both of last year’s matches.
“There’s something magnetic about playing Long Beach, and now knowing that Irvine is legit and in first place,” Gregory said about the upcoming trip. “Before, this trip was just about Long Beach, but now Irvine is in there.”
Saturday’s clash with the 49ers is for history and bragging rights, but Friday’s Gauchos-Anteaters winner walks away with first place.