Santa Barbara weather has turned chilly, so hopefully the #19 UCSB women’s volleyball team (15-6, 11-2 in the Big West) will be prepared for their two-game swing to the frozen lands of Idaho and Utah.

Rounding out UCSB’s final road matches, the Gauchos face Idaho (13-10, 4-8 in the Big West) tonight at 7, followed by Utah State (14-9, 6-6 in the Big West) Saturday night at 6.

The Gauchos are hot on the heels of a season-best five-game winning streak that includes decisive victories over rival Long Beach State and upstart Northridge. Junior setter Mari Bell is coming off a breakout weekend that saw her win her first Big West Player of the Week award for two amazing performances. Bell dished off 44 assists against the Matadors last Friday and added 53 more – plus three service aces and 15 digs – the next night for her third double-double in her last four matches.

“Mari has really improved in areas to help the team,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “[UCSB] made a commitment for Bell to be able to set [freshman middle blocker] Olivia [Waldowski].” The Gauchos have worked extensively with Bell’s sets to individual players.

UCSB also features the top-hitting tandem in the Big West with Waldowski and sophomore middle blocker Megan Blackshire, leading the conference in hitting percentage. Their accuracy and Bell’s improvements have helped the Gauchos to a two-game lead over Northridge and Long Beach State in the Big West.

The Vandals staved off defeat by sweep when they visited the Thunderdome four weeks ago only to lose the match in four games. Junior middle blocker Sarah Meek and senior middle blocker Anna-Marie Hammond combined for 43 kills in that contest and have led the Vandals to a respectable hitting percentage of .247 after a slow start. Idaho came up empty on last week’s road series against the 49ers and Anteaters, but won six in a row prior to those games and will look to get back on the winning track against Santa Barbara.

Utah State made the Gauchos earn their five-game win last month, driving UCSB to two of its longest rally-scoring games ever in the 2 1/2-hour marathon. Sophomore outside hitter Zuzana Cernianska and senior middle blocker Erin Cartwright-Davis starred for USU in that match, connecting for 26 and 25 kills, respectively, and the two combined for an average of 9.2 kills per game. The Aggies are giddy over their 3-1 upset of the reeling Anteaters on Oct. 31 and can climb as high as fourth place in a conference that sent four teams to the 2002 NCAA Tournament with a pair of wins this weekend.

“We always get fired up for the big games, but it’s these teams this weekend that people overlook,” junior libero Kristin Nelson said. “It would be a killer to lose one of these games.”