After dropping its two conference games last weekend and falling to fourth in the Big West, it is evaluation time for the UCSB women’s volleyball team.

Before we even look at why this season’s team will most likely not go to the Big Dance for the first time since the tournament began in 1981, it is important to understand who is missing on the court this season. Last spring, four Gauchos left UCSB – some were asked to leave and others left out of their own discontent – and transferred to other schools on the West Coast.

Senior outside hitter Janine Sandell transferred to spend her senior year playing for the defending national champion University of Washington. Thus far, Sandell has amassed 136 kills, is hitting .260 and has scored 171.5 points for the #4 Huskies.

Junior middle blocker Bethany Johansen is currently a starter at #6 University of Southern California. Johansen, who led the Gauchos last season hitting .375, has played in all 80 games for the Trojans, is fourth on the team with 228 points off 170 kills, is hitting a team-second .311 and is first on the squad with 98 blocks.

Junior setter Ashley Dutro has 863 assists in 80 games for Loyola Marymount. She averaged 12 assists per game last season – good for fourth place in the Big West. In 2004, Dutro earned a spot on the Big West All-Freshman team.

So, if all those people played for UCSB, transferred and are now starting players for top-ranked universities, what does that say about the UCSB women’s volleyball program? It has taken a serious turn for the worse.

While some players do not mesh well with some coaches, the departure of those three key players is a reflection on Head Coach Kathy Gregory’s “my way or the highway” approach to volleyball. There is no disputing Gregory’s successful 32-year tenure – 24 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament is no small feat – but many of those trips have ended in first-round dismissals. It may be time for a change.

If the past two games are any indication for Santa Barbara, then something evil this way comes. On Friday, UC Irvine beat UCSB at home for the first time in program history to give the Anteaters their second Big West Conference victory of the year. To the Gauchos’ credit, they were not the only ones to lose to Irvine this weekend; the Anteaters also beat #19 Cal Poly at home Saturday. However, Santa Barbara allowed Irvine to hit a collective .137 on the night and the Anteaters still came away with the victory.

Saturday night was even worse for UCSB, losing for the first time since 2001 at home to rival Long Beach State. To top it off, the 2005 Big West co-champions 49ers swept the Gauchos in three games in CSTV’s match of the week. Santa Barbara hit a disgusting .107 on the night, .026 in the 30-17 set two loss and .091 in game three’s 30-22 decision, not to mention that the 49ers out-blocked the Gauchos 12-5.

Unless by some miracle the other three teams above Santa Barbara – Cal Poly, Long Beach and Northridge – lose the remainder of their games, UCSB will not win the 2006 Big West Conference title. It will be the first time in five years that the Gauchos have not won the crown, and it comes as a result of their shaky and inconsistent league play.

Luckily for the Gauchos, their final four conference games of the year are against teams that they swept the first time around – Riverside, Fullerton, Pacific and Northridge. After that, they have to wait and hope that string of consecutive trips to the Big Dance will get them enough sympathy to receive an at-large bid to the tournament. Even if they fail to do so, let’s hope for the future of Santa Barbara volleyball that this year provides a much-needed wakeup call for the Gaucho program.

Daily Nexus AP Editor Anna Oleson-Wheeler will bring smelling salts and an air horn to the Gauchos’ next home match.