Expectations are high for the UCSB men’s volleyball team in its 2005 season.
Head Coach Kenny Preston is aiming for the top.
“We expect higher results than seventh place,” Preston said. “Our goal is to win the National Championship. That’s where we’re going. That’s where we’re heading. That’s the mentality we have.”
The Gauchos are returning six starters including the libero position and fifteen total letterwinners from a 2004 team that finished seventh in the Big West.
“It’s not a rebuilding year,” Preston said. “This is not a year where we have little experience. We have all the pieces in place and I think the team fully expects to be very very competitive and have a shot at the highest championship.”
Santa Barbara lost middle blocker Justin Adams, who also played a large role as a team leader, to graduation. The loss of Adams puts the only hole in the starting line-up. That hole will likely be filled by freshman Theo Brunner who, at 6’7″, is a big force at the net coming out of a redshirt year.
“He’s just an athletic freshman who seems to catch on pretty quick,” Preston said. “It’s not like he’s out there with a bunch of rookies. He’s out there with a lot of guys who have some time and experience. It’s a good situation for him to learn as well.”
Michael Kennedy is one of those guys with experience. At 6’7″, the senior middle blocker will start opposite Brunner and will provide much-needed leadership.
“Michael is solid,” Preston said. “Michael is one of the best hitters in the country. He’s going to be good.”
Also battling for a spot in the middle will be senior Mike Nelson and sophomore Hayden Watkins. At 6’9″, Watkins is a big presence at the net. Nelson, at 6’4″ and relatively small for a middle, has been moved from the opposite position but has not seen much practice time due to injury.
Moving into the opposite position is senior Adam Ulfers, who stepped in for sophomore Evan Patak, the 2004 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Freshman of the Year honoree, when he was sidelined with an injury late in fall quarter.
“Right now it’s a battle because Adam’s playing awfully well and so that position’s kind of up for grabs,” Preston said. “Adam does some things better than Evan, and Evan does some things better than Adam.”
Patak has started practicing, but Ulfers will likely get the starting nod in the Gauchos’ season opener tomorrow night against the University of Calgary.
“It’s going to make a good situation,” Preston said. “We have two solid guys in that position and if one of them is off, the other will be able to spell him.”
Outside hitters senior Nate Wack and sophomore Jake Wiens are starting, with sophomores Bryan Berman and Aaron Richman and freshman Michael Fisher vying for the back-up role. Both Wack and Wiens were UCSB’s starters last year, but questionable academics may take one of the two out of the line-up.
Berman has been moved to a hitting position after spending two years on the UCSB team as a setter.
“We’ll see what happens with him,” Preston said. “He’s an awfully good volleyball player. We might have to make room for him somewhere.”
Junior Bart Kowalski will start for the Gauchos after backing up junior Dane Jensen in Santa Barbara’s 2004 campaign. Jensen will in turn back up Kowalski.
“[Kowalski’s] just been the best guy in the gym,” Preston said.
If Kowalski can connect well with Kennedy and ease Brunner into collegiate competition, the Gauchos should possess a strong middle attack.
Last year 10 of 12 MPSF teams ended their respective seasons atop the USA Today/American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 15 Poll. MPSF Tournament Champion BYU went on to become the National Champion, and Long Beach State was the runner-up in both cases. With a tough league schedule all season, the Gauchos will need to pass well, be accurate hitters, put up a strong block, keep their serves in, and stay consistent to be a legitimate contender for the national championship.