At 7 tonight, the Gaucho women’s volleyball team will break in the newly resurfaced Thunderdome floor for competition against longtime conference rival Pacific and give students their first opportunity to see the squad, ranked eighth nationally.
The Santa Barbara-Pacific matchup is always hotly contested, and this year will not be any different. The Tigers (6-3 overall, 3-1 in the Big West) are coming off a momentous 3-0 win last weekend against #23 Long Beach State and bring with them the reigning Big West Player of the Week, junior right-side hitter Sidney Bennett.
Despite a few early season losses, the Tigers seem to have hit their stride as of late, and tonight’s contest could be a preview the outcome of the Big West race.
Saturday at 7 in the T-Dome, the Gauchos will look to avenge last year’s loss to Northridge. This match will be no walk in the park for UCSB either; Northridge (6-4, 3-1 in the Big West) and Big West Player of the Year candidate Jen Ryan rode a six-game win streak prior to being tripped up by Long Beach on Sept. 25.
Though undefeated thus far, the young Gauchos have yet to truly solidify their identity and realize their full potential, which should be a scary thought for future opponents. Middle blockers junior Megan Blackshire and sophomore Olivia Waldowski have been hitting solidly all season, garnering considerable attention from opposing blockers.
Before last weekend, the strategy of sticking to the middle blockers was the best way to contest the UCSB attack. However, after last weekend, opposing coaches might be forced to rethink their strategy; sophomore outside hitters Janine Sandell and Emily Hendrickson had the kind of matches that Head Coach Kathy Gregory had been waiting for all season. Last Friday, Sandell recorded a team- and season-high 18 kills, as well as 13 digs, for her first career double-double. Hendrickson tallied a double-double on both nights and swung for a .524 average on Saturday.
With the arrival of this offense on the outside, opposing blockers’ jobs will become much more difficult while UCSB setters Mari Bell and Ashley Dutro’s jobs will become easier due to a full lineup of effective attackers.
The starting setting spot for the Gauchos is still up for grabs, as neither Bell nor Dutro has been consistent enough to force a decision from Gregory. At times, UCSB has been running a 6-2 lineup that puts both setters on the court at the same time, which allows there to always be three hitters in the front row.
What has been consistent this year for the Gauchos has been serving, particularly from the likes of sophomore outside hitter Jamie Garbisch, Hendrickson, Waldowski and, thanks to a rule change this year that allows liberos to serve, senior Kristen Nelson. With a strong serve and deepening cohesion on the court, UCSB will surely block any hopes of a Pacific or Northridge upset.