Having left the toughest part of its schedule behind, the UCSB women’s volleyball team aims to finish strong in hopes of reaching yet another NCAA Tournament this year.

The Gauchos (11-8 overall, 3-3 in the Big West) have not lost to a Big West opponent, other than Cal Poly and Long Beach State, since Pacific swept them in the Thunderdome early in the 2004 conference season. Santa Barbara hits the road to take on second-place Cal State Northridge (12-5, 5-1 Big West) this evening, riding a five-game winning streak in the series.

“Northridge is very good, definitely as good as their record indicates,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “They are one of the biggest teams in the league if not the biggest and one of the best blocking and serving teams.”

The Matadors slipped up in their only true conference test thus far, losing to Long Beach State on the road. But CSUN has won all three matches since, and nine of its last 10 overall. Unlike the Gauchos, Northridge’s easy schedule helped it transition quickly into league play, as it still has yet to face conference-leader Cal Poly twice.

In non-conference play, each team has notched victories against Xavier and San Jose State while losing to Las Vegas and San Diego. Four Matadors rank in the top-10 in service aces and sophomore middle blocker Darla Donaldson averages a team leading 3.18 kills a game. Donaldson also ranks fourth in the Big West in hitting percentage.

CSUN utilizes both freshman setter Angela Hupp and sophomore setter Kayla Wright, so the Gauchos will have to be prepared to defend against two different offensive styles. This match begins a four-match home stand for Northridge, a crucial stretch toward determining its end of the year standing.

“It’s hard to play in their small gym and its a must win for both of us,” Gregory said. “They have good physical size and a lot of hitters and they are still learning how to win.”

Seniors middle blocker Olivia Waldowski reigns over the conference with a .379 hitting percentage, while outside hitter Jamie Garbisch leads the Gaucho attack with 3.86 kills per game.

Last weekend’s loss to Cal Poly ended Santa Barbara’s four game winning streak as UCSB struggled offensively against the Cal Poly block. Northridge poses the same problem for the Gauchos, as they are one of the best defensive teams in the conference.

“We hope both outside hitters have a positive hitting attack and we need some production out of the left side,” Gregory said.

There is little room for error for Santa Barbara if it is to reach the NCAA Tournament. The squad has picked up quality wins over Wisconsin, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, but another conference loss would be a critical blow to the Gauchos’ chances.

“I think the urgency is that we’re one game away from not going to the NCAAs,” Gregory said. “The best way for us to get to the NCAAs if we don’t win the Big West, is that we have to maintain a good overall record. I think there is a very strong chance that three Big West teams could advance.”

The match with the Matadors will go a long way toward determining who fits into the top-three in the conference at the end of the day. First serve is set for tonight at 7 p.m. in the Matadome.