After losing several key players from last season, the UCSB women’s volleyball team hopes a mix of fresh faces and returnees will amount to a fifth straight Big West title

The Gauchos (3-3 overall) must cope with the graduation of Megan Blackshire, a three-time All-Big West First Team member and one of the best middle blockers in school history.

“We’re going to miss a player that was an impact player,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “She was a great four-year player, but we have two great middles who are playing well right now.”

Helping to fill Blackshire’s void is junior middle blocker Brett Quirarte, an All-Big West First Team member last season, along with senior middle blocker and All-Big West Honorable Mention Olivia Waldowski. Each player has averaged more than one block per game this season and both rank among the conference leaders in hitting percentage.

Santa Barbara must also move on without outside hitter and reigning Big West Player of the Year Janine Sandell, who transferred to Washington for her senior season, as well as setter Ashley Dutro who left for Loyola Marymount.

Gregory, in her 32nd year at the helm of the program, has decided to use freshman setter Stephanie Brandt and junior setter Kayce Matthess equally through the first part of the season instead of handing the job to one.

“Stephanie is a freshman and is a little quicker and more athletic, but Kayce is more experienced having run the offense before,” Gregory said. “We’re trying to use both of them because both are important to the team and both bring different styles.”

On the outside, UCSB is lead by senior outside hitter Jamie Garbisch and sophomore outside hitter Lauren McLaughlin, an All-Big West Freshman Team member last year. Freshman outside hitter Rebecca Saraceno has been a pleasant surprise for the Gauchos, leading the team with over 3.5 kills per game in her first season.

Senior libero Emily Hendrickson anchors the Santa Barbara defense after making the transition from outside hitter last season and earning an All-Big West Honorable Mention.

UCSB will have an uphill battle in conference play as Cal Poly showed much improvement last season, narrowly missing out on an NCAA tournament berth, and Big West co-champion Long Beach State returns with the core of its lineup still intact.

“We’re not deep in the middle or the outside and Cal Poly and Long Beach State have a bit more depth and more returners coming back,” Gregory said. “For us to get to the NCAA tournament we’re probably going to have to win the conference.”

The squad kicks off Big West play at home against Cal Poly on Sept. 23 and will need production from every player if the team hopes to reach the NCAA tournament for a 26th straight year.