When Gaucho seniors Kristin Nelson, Mari Bell and Amy Sarkaria agreed to play at Santa Barbara four years ago, UCSB women’s volleyball was a well-established, solid program still seeking its first Big West championship. Now, with two league cups in their trophy case, the Gauchos are heavily favored to win their third straight championship and are looking to Nelson’s leadership to get them there.

“We are nothing without Kristin’s passing and defense,” UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “She has to be steady for us, because without her, we’re an average team.”

Gregory’s praise is not unwarranted as Nelson brought home First Team All-Big West honors last season, becoming the first libero ever to make the squad. In the team’s first six victories, Nelson has averaged five digs per frame, with a season-high record of 26 scoops against Cal Poly on Sept. 14. The cancellation of three matches due to the hurricanes in Florida hurt Nelson’s chances at becoming the #1 passer in school history. Nelson currently holds eighth place, 373 digs away with 20 meetings left on the schedule.

Junior middle blocker Megan Blackshire is among the senior members of the club, rounding out the list of four upperclassmen on the roster. Blackshire’s reliability over her two-year career has been amazing, netting her an All-West Region Honorable Mention last season and a spot at the SDSU Invitational tournament to begin the 2004 season.

“Megan is very consistent and is the spirit of the team,” Gregory said. “She always has two blockers on her, but she has used her quickness and competitiveness to improve in lots of areas.”

The strong middle combination of Blackshire and 2003 Freshman of the Year Olivia Waldowski received a complement in first-year outside hitter Bethany Johansen, who at 6’3″, can play in the middle as well. The terrific trio, plus sophomore outside hitter Emily Hendrickson, have handled most of the attacking and are countered on the left side by sophomore Janine Sandell.

Sandell peaked at the very end of last season, notching 27 kills in UCSB’s final match, a five-game loss to Northern Iowa in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She has averaged more than three kills per game early this year, but is still awaiting that break out match. Sandell has seen action in the back row this season as well, territory not often explored by the powerful swinger in her first year.

“As a team, we need Janine to be ready to hit more than Emily,” Gregory said. “We also need her to provide the back-row attack and play defense. With Janine, Olivia and Bethany on the block, it’s hard to put down balls against us.”

The Sept. 14 match against Cal Poly is exhibit A in the strong case for the Gaucho defense in 2004. Though Santa Barbara registered just one team block, the Mustangs hit below .100 on the night and mustered only 24 kills in the three-game affair. UCSB faces Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside on the road this weekend; both teams are winless in the conference and have never defeated the Gauchos. Gregory never writes off an opponent, even though it seems that there are much more challenging weekends ahead in the conference schedule.

“Every time you step out on the court, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gregory warned, pointing out that Riverside upset Long Beach early in 2003. “You can’t look at records. We haven’t played for 10 days, we may be rusty.”

Nonconference matches against Loyola Marymount University on Oct. 5 and versus Pepperdine on Nov. 2, both at the Thunderdome, are the only contests that break up the Big West schedule for Santa Barbara. The big games against Long Beach are Oct. 16 at home and Nov. 12 away. The always-tough, out-of-state trip to Idaho and Utah takes place in two weeks, and the Pacific-Northridge swing is set for Halloween weekend. UCSB closes the home schedule with Utah State on Nov. 6 before dealing with Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Cal Poly and UC Davis in succession to end the regular season schedule.