#20 Santa Barbara (19-8, 14-4 in the Big West) has been invited to its 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament, but the selection committee gave the Gauchos the cold shoulder, shipping them off to Minneapolis for first- and second-round action.
UCSB will face the University of Northern Iowa (27-5, 16-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference) on Friday at 3:30 p.m. PST. The #16 Panthers are fresh off their sixth straight Missouri Valley Tournament crown and have never before faced Santa Barbara.
“I feel like this is a very tough draw,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “However, it’s always exciting to play a team you’ve never faced before, and to travel somewhere with a great volleyball atmosphere.”
The trek to the tundra is only the second sub-regional trip to another time zone in 23 years for the Gauchos, whose glaring five-game loss to lackluster Cal Poly on Nov. 22 dashed any hopes they had to host the first two rounds. Seniors Erica Menzel and Francina Edmonds, both outside hitters, bid farewell to the Thunderdome on a high note, however, keying a sweep over fellow Tournament-invitee Arizona on Nov. 29.
Sophomore middle blocker Megan Blackshire should come out firing in the first round, hot off an efficient .800 hitting performance against the Wildcats. Blackshire is swinging the best of all Gauchos of late, piling up 10 or more kills in her last 14 matches, and freshman middle blocker Olivia Waldowski has managed to stay ahead of Blackshire in the Big West ranks with a .380 attacking percentage, tops in the league.
The Panthers were an Elite Eight team in 2002 and return a vast amount of postseason experience in senior Molly O’Brien and junior Shari Vermeer, two UNI middles who average seven kills and nearly three blocks per game between them. Northern Iowa also boasts a sophomore dynamo in outside hitter Rachael Tink, who contributes 3.8 kills per game to the Panther attack that hits a scintillating .281 as a team.
Santa Barbara has enjoyed success against taller teams by enduring long points and finding ways to beat the block. Two wins against the Wildcats and decisive victories against Long Beach State, two of the taller teams on their schedule, should prime the Gauchos for a match against the Panthers, who feature a lineup of blockers and outside hitters averaging six feet in height.
The winner of the Gaucho-Panther battle will go on to face the winner of the other first-round match, either Wisconsin-Green Bay or host #17 Minnesota. The second-round game will take place on Saturday at 5 p.m. PST, and both matches will be aired live on KCSB 91.9-FM and www.kcsb.org.