If the Gauchos were a herd of raging bulls, then Long Beach State would be the unsuspecting rodeo clown.
Traveling to Pepperdine tonight for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Tournament Semifinals, sixth-seeded Santa Barbara (16-13 overall, 13-9 in the MPSF) will have to muster another upset – this time over second-seed Long Beach State (21-9 overall, 14-8 in the MPSF) – if it wants to move on to the MPSF Championships.
While the Gauchos were busy defeating defending champions Brigham Young University (BYU) in the quarterfinals Saturday night, Long Beach also managed to squeak out an upset over fourth-seeded Hawaii in its first playoff matchup.
“It’s always exciting when you advance in the playoffs,” UCSB Head Coach Ken Preston said. “It’s a great honor that we made it here, but Long Beach is an excellent squad and they pass the ball very well. Right now, they are playing at their highest level of the year and they could possibly be the best team in the country.”
The 49ers boast the highest rated setter in the MPSF in junior Tyler Hildebrand. This season, Hildebrand holds the number-one spot in assists per game, at 14.22, and has helped Long Beach post the third-best hitting percentage in the conference.
“They probably have the best setter in the country,” Preston said. “We need to serve tough if we want to get their setter out of rhythm, and our blocking will need to step it up as well if we want to keep them out of their system.”
As of late, sophomore opposite and 2005 All-MPSF First Team selection Evan Patak has been the focus of every opponent’s defensive scheme, giving the chance for other Gauchos to prove their potent potential.
Senior opposite Adam Ulfers has come off the bench to give the Gauchos another option at the net. Ulfers racked up nine kills in the Gauchos’ final match of the season against visiting USC and pounded a team-high 19 kills in the win over BYU.
“Ulfers has been around the block,” Preston said. “He’s been a journeyman, but recently he has found his place in our offense. Hopefully he can keep doing what he’s been doing.”
If Santa Barbara wishes to play a future role in this postseason, it will have to find a way to play strong early on. The Gauchos defeated the 49ers in both conference matches this season, but a slow start in their most recent face-off almost landed UCSB the losing blow.
“We’re trying to prepare the same way as we did against BYU,” Ulfers said. “We are playing well right now and if we keep it up [the match] should be close. Our main focus is to shut down [their outside hitters] and if we can limit their outside kills, then we will be right there with them.”