During Saturday’s match, it wasn’t easy to tell which team was playoff-bound and which was just playing out the string.
The #21 Gauchos (18-8, 14-4 in the Big West) dropped a shocker to a struggling Cal Poly squad in five games, tarnishing their perfect home record and denting their chances to win a bid to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The upset win put an end to a six-game losing streak for the Mustangs (13-16, 5-13 in the Big West) and a 1-7 stretch that featured three five-game losses.
At the outset, Santa Barbara figured to take this match in three games, and it appeared that that was going to happen as UCSB knocked the Mustangs silly in game one, limiting them to an anemic .031 hitting percentage and just 11 points, a rally-scoring era best for the Gauchos. Santa Barbara jumped out to an 8-1 lead courtesy of senior outside hitter Erica Menzel’s five kills over that period, and only allowed consecutive points once in the opening frame. Menzel tallied seven kills in the first game, one more than Cal Poly’s total, while freshman middle blocker Olivia Waldowski matched the opposing team with six of her own. The Gauchos committed only one hitting error, attacking at a scorching rate of .559.
The Gauchos built a 13-8 lead in game two, but Cal Poly clawed back to tie the score at 18, prompting UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory to call a time out. Sophomore middle blocker Megan Blackshire quickly pounded two of her 13 kills on the evening, but the Mustangs reeled off nine straight points to put the game out of reach at 28-21. Cal Poly put the game away on an ace by senior outside hitter Molly Duncan, but the game was won at the net as the Mustangs confounded the Gaucho attackers with five team blocks.
“That first game gave us a false sense of security. We thought they’d give the match to us, but they came back and took us out of our rhythm,” Gregory said, noting that the Mustangs are the top blocking team in the conference.
Cal Poly continued to block well and anticipate the Gauchos’ every move, holding a 28-24 advantage when Santa Barbara senior Francina Edmonds crumpled to the floor with what Gregory assessed as a sprained ankle, leaving Edmonds out of commission for the remainder of the match. The two teams traded points, and with the score set at 29-25 Mustangs, the Gauchos turned on the juice for six straight points, taking game three 31-29 on a Cal Poly net violation.
The visiting Mustangs enjoyed a 7-2 advantage early in game four and throttled the Gauchos 30-26, leading the entire way. Duncan exploded for seven kills and junior outside hitter Jessica Diepersloot contributed eight digs and four kills, including two crucial tips in a row to put game four out of reach. The Mustangs were ready for a game five, having been there three times in their last eight frustrating matches.
“We prepared all week to finish games,” Duncan said. “From Monday to Friday, [Head Coach Steve Schlick] set the score at 28-28 in practice and said ‘finish the game.'”
Santa Barbara battled the Mustangs to a 3-3 tie, but Cal Poly erupted for a 6-1 run to take a convincing lead. Down 11-6, freshman outside hitter Janine Sandell keyed a 5-0 Gaucho spurt with two powerful spikes, and the Mustangs pulled away again, blocking Sandell at the net and using a Diepersloot ace to jump back on top, 14-11. Cal Poly finally ended the grueling match when Duncan smacked an errant Gaucho pass to the floor for a 15-12 game five victory.
Duncan led all hitters with 20 kills and notched 17 digs, and Mustang sophomore outside hitter Vanessa Gilliam chipped in 16 kills to pace Cal Poly. Menzel earned 19 kills and a career-high 28 digs in her final Big West match, and junior setter Mari Bell improved on the Gaucho school record for assists in the rally-scoring format with 64 sets. The Gauchos out-dug the Mustangs by a 111-101 margin, establishing a new school record and marking the second time this month that Santa Barbara has amassed triple-digit scoops.
All of the record breaking couldn’t buy the Gauchos a win against the statistically weaker Mustangs, but the loss didn’t affect their spot in the Big West standings as Cal State Northridge lost on Thursday to clinch the title for UCSB. The loss will affect Santa Barbara’s NCAA Tournament seeding and will throw doubt into the mix as to whether or not the Gauchos will host as they did last year.
“The loss leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” Gregory said, “but that’s what can happen in the NCAAs if you’re not hungry enough, ready enough, or tough enough.”
UCSB will host #25 Arizona (16-13, 10-8 in the Pac-10) on Saturday to round out the regular-season schedule and will await the results of the selection show to find out where and when they will begin their 23rd straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.