Saturday night will mark the end of an up-and-down conference season for Gaucho volleyball, but amid an uncertain playoff picture and a pesky losing streak, Santa Barbara’s match against unranked USC is critical for picking up some winning momentum.

Last time the two teams met, the #7 Gauchos (14-13 overall, 12-9 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) swept the Trojans in three games (6-22 overall, 3-18 in the MPSF), but with the Gauchos sputtering on a three-match losing streak, USC’s chances look a bit more uplifting.

Wednesday night’s loss to #2 Pepperdine forces the Gauchos to start the first round of the MPSF tournament on the road, and, with all the action happening in conference Saturday night, Santa Barbara’s playoff future is questionable.

“We have to focus on our side and sharpen what we’ve been doing,” Head Coach Ken Preston said. “[USC] is a good team and they’ll be fighting hard to spoil.”

USC represents the bottom of the MPSF barrel, yet with nothing to lose, the Trojans will be looking to rip an inconvenient hole in the Gauchos’ morale.

“We have some things we need to iron out before going into the playoffs, and [the match] should be a good opportunity to get a win,” senior libero Aaron Mansfield said. “There’s no reason that we shouldn’t beat them in three [games], but they’re a good team and we can’t overlook them.”

Santa Barbara, which has been feeding its offense through sophomore opposite Evan Patak all season, should exploit the All-American as usual, but junior setter Bart Kowalski will attempt to spread the ball to the Gauchos’ other weapons.

“Our outside hitters need to get more involved, but it’s hard when Patak is hitting so well,” Preston said. “[Kowalski] will be starting, and I hope we can spread the ball around more.”

Patak will likely be the focus of the USC defensive strategy, but with his stranglehold over first place in MPSF kill statistics, it won’t be an easy affair. The Gauchos, however, will need to switch their offense up a bit if they wish to go very far in the postseason.

“Patak is a great hitter, but teams are starting to key in on him,” Mansfield said. “Some other guys are going to have to step in if we’re going to be successful in the playoffs.”

Looking to cap their illustrious collegiate careers, seniors Aaron Mansfield, Michael Kennedy, Nate Wack, Adam Ulfers and Mike Nelson will play on the court of Rob Gym in one last Santa Barbara showdown.

“I’m more concerned with getting a win before we head into the playoffs,” Mansfield said. “We’ve lost six of our last seven games, so we really need a win, but it is going to be a lot of fun to play in Rob Gym one last time.”