As the excitement from hurdling UCLA (3-5 overall, 1-4 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) and falling one set short of toppling the Irvine Empire fades into the background, the UCSB men’s volleyball team (5-2, 3-1 MPSF) hits the road again with its new reputation as the #4 team in the nation.
Perhaps still riding the success of seasons past, #3 Hawaii still floats above the Gauchos in the coaches’ poll, taunting them with an unimpressive .500 record in four matches.
“It will pan out; it’s a long season and I’m sure [the coaches] have a lot of last year in their heads still with the rankings, but I’m sure we’ll end up where we deserve to be,” junior middle blocker Theo Brunner said. “We feel we deserve to be there and higher, but honestly the rankings are not the most important thing. It’s each game, and we’re taking it that way.”
Both of the Gauchos’ losses admittedly come at the hands to the #1 team in the nation, the unbeaten Anteaters (9-0, 5-0 MPSF), but that is only half the story. They were in straight sets, whereas only one out of two victories over #12 Pacific (2-5, 1-3 MPSF) showcased a three-game sweep for the Pacific Islanders (2-2, 2-2 MPSF).
But somehow in the eyes of the nation’s coaches, those dismal losses coupled with victories over a team not in the top 10 still afford Hawaii the #3 slot above the heavily tested and repeatedly triumphant Gauchos.
Tonight the newest members of the top-five faces #8 Long Beach in the Pyramid, where the 49ers (4-3, 2-2 MPSF) boast an intimidating 40-7 record over the past few seasons. Lucky for the Gauchos, they won’t be facing much of the same squad that put up those numbers.
“They’re a pretty young team; the past two years that I’ve been competing they’ve had an entirely different roster, with the exception of one or two guys,” Brunner said. “They’re not what they were in the past two years, but at the same time they could be explosive; they could get hot and definitely be dangerous. We’re in a tough league and if we don’t come out to play, we could lose to anybody.”
The team has spent the past week focused on a blocking scheme aimed to counter the line of attack, a “B-Go” system, it expects out of Long Beach state.
“It’s an overload offense, similar to USC. It overloads the right side when we’re blocking and opens up the back side,” Brunner said. “The middle and the outside hitter both attack over to the right.”
The Gauchos have seen the scheme before, when they faced USC (2-5, 1-3 MPSF) in the Elephant Bar Invitational earlier this month. And while they vow not to take anyone lightly, it is obvious that Long Beach lacks the star-power to infuse real fear into their hearts.
For Long Beach, having only three seniors on a team of 25 surely can’t help their cause in a league of giants. However, the contributions of outside hitter Paul Lotman – who leads the team with more than five kills a game – may be worthy of note.
And as UCSB heads south to Long Beach tonight and then to unranked UCSD (2-2, 1-2 MPSF) on Saturday, it does so with a week of highly defensive practice under the Gauchos’ belts and a growing hunger for the top of the rankings.
“We’re very comfortable with the spots we’ve been given,” Brunner said. “We weren’t all that satisfied, having gone up 2-0 and then losing to Irvine. But at the same time, we showed we can play with anyone. We’re all extremely confident; we think we’re one of the best teams in the country and we just want more opportunities to show it.”