With so many road games and nine new faces on the roster, it’s a wonder that any Gaucho fans have had time to learn the #21 UCSB women’s volleyball team and appreciate the magnitude of this weekend’s games. The Gauchos (16-7, 12-3 in the Big West) are home to stay for the regular season, but the story is the same – a loss in either of the two games could cost them dearly in their quest to defend last year’s Big West title.

Long Beach State and Irvine, the third-place powers from the south, will visit the Thunderdome tonight and Saturday night, respectively, with the first serve in both matches taking place at 7 p.m. The Gauchos ventured down to the two universities last month and came away with a split, losing a heartbreaker to the Anteaters (18-8, 9-5 in the Big West) in five games and rebounding the next night, using four games to upend the 49ers (14-7, 9-5 in the Big West).

Santa Barbara would need as much motivation to whip Long Beach whether the fight was for first place or last place. The 49ers hold a 49-29 advantage in the all-time series, but the “Battle of the Beach” rivalry has been all UCSB lately, with the Gauchos taking the last three matches and five of the last seven. Though Santa Barbara split last weekend, it has the hotter hand coming into tonight’s contest, winning six of its last seven compared to Long Beach’s 4-4 record over their last eight.

49er junior outside hitter Erika Chidester averages double-digit kills every night while playing out of position to allow for the emergence of freshmen dynamos Natalie Uhart and Mariko Crum in the middle. The Gauchos allowed 29 kills from Chidester on Oct. 18, but countered with a solid .282 hitting percentage highlighted by three players, registering at least 12 kills.

Last year’s 49er-Gaucho bout drew over 4,200 fans, and there is reason to expect nearly as many spectators for tonight’s match. Long Beach Head Coach Brian Gimmillaro has been quoted several times as downplaying the rivalry, claiming that the 49ers are out of Santa Barbara’s league. Gimmillaro earned a yellow card for arguing with the up referee in last month’s match, used a slew of choice language while berating the down referee after the game, and took a break during game two to have it out verbally with the Gaucho faithful that showed up to the Pyramid.

The Anteaters were ecstatic over their upset of Santa Barbara, but their season turned sour immediately following the win as they dropped four straight matches and tumbled into third place. UCI junior outside hitter Kelly Wing, a strong Big West Player of the Year candidate, accounts for a third of her team’s successful attacks and notched 33 kills against UCSB en route to pulling down one of her three Big West Player of the Week awards.

Two wins would clinch at least a share of the Big West title for the Gauchos and put them in a commanding position, with only Cal Poly left on the conference schedule.