Sparked by a strong run in the final stretch of the season, the UCSB women’s volleyball team reached yet another NCAA Tournament and will face #22 BYU this evening from USC’s Galen Center.
This year’s bid is the 26th-straight for the Gauchos (19-11 overall) as they are one of only three teams to qualify for the tournament in every year of its existence, joining Stanford and Penn State as the only schools with perfect attendance. Santa Barbara opened tournament play at USC last year as well, losing to the Trojans 3-1 after stealing game one.
“[The streak] means a lot to me because it’ll probably never be done again and every year it’s harder to maintain,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “To do it this year means more to me than any other year because there was a lot of adversity and I wanted it so much for the seniors.”
UCSB closed the season the way any team would want by reeling off five straight wins heading into tournament play, including an impressive come-from-behind win over Cal State Northridge to help clinch third place in the Big West, and earning two victories in Long Beach State’s Baden Thanksgiving Classic. #14 Cal Poly’s 13-1 conference record earned the squad its first regular season crown in 22 years and was the first time the Gauchos did not have a piece of the title since 2001.
The Cougars (24-5) are yet another ranked team Santa Barbara must face. The Gauchos took down #10 Wisconsin and #24 Pepperdine, but fell to #2 Stanford, #14 Cal Poly twice, #17 San Diego and #20 Ohio.
“The tough schedule is the reason we’re in,” Gregory said. “We’re tournament-tested. Now you just hope you can use all the experience that you have learned.”
After winning its final five Mountain West Conference matches, BYU fell to San Diego State in the team’s first MWC tournament match. The Cougars played six matches against NCAA-bound teams, posting a 4-2 record, including a win over the #2 seed Stanford. Like UCSB, BYU is no stranger to the NCAA Tournament, having qualified 23 times in the tournament’s 26-year existence. Last season, the Cougars fell to eventual Sweet Sixteen participant Pepperdine in the opening round.
Junior outside hitter Chelsea Goodman leads the BYU attack averaging nearly 4.5 kills per game while senior middle blocker Lindsy Hartsock leads the team with a .388 hitter percentage. The Cougars hit a solid .271 clip as a team, far higher than Santa Barbara’s .223 percentage.
“They are a very physical team and they swing and block like us and have some very good outside hitters,” Gregory said. “I think we match up better with them because it’s not a very fast attack. They have struggled, but it’s a good offensive team. We’re happy that we’re not playing a team in the top four seeds.”
Starting over Thanksgiving break for the Gauchos, junior middle blocker Brett Quirarte turned in an errorless 13-kill performance against Albany and a career-high 25 kills against Western Michigan. Senior middle blocker Olivia Waldowski put together another fine season, hitting at a Big West high .401 clip and ranking second on the team with 3.53 kills a game.
In a season where UC Irvine picked up its first ever Thunderdome win and the Gauchos fell to Cal State Fullerton for the first time in history, a tournament bid was in doubt midway through the season. But the team persevered and saved some of its best volleyball until the end, keeping the historical streak alive.
“A close game was one of the biggest things because we want the parents and family to come and see,” Gregory said. “I’m happy for the seniors who will end their career with four straight trips to the tournament.”
The first serve tonight is set for 5 p.m.