It will be an important week for the UCSB’s women’s volleyball team, as the Gauchos take on a pair of Big West Conference foes in the race for the Big West title. Santa Barbara opens the weekend with tonight’s match in the Thunderdome against defending champion #24 Cal Poly (10-7 overall, 4-1 in the Big West) and Saturday’s road match against #19 UC Riverside (5-11, 1-4 Big West), both at 7 p.m.

The Gauchos (6-11, 1-4 Big West) are ready to capture a victory after last week’s devastating loss against Cal State Fullerton (8-8, 3-2 Big West). Starting fresh, the Gauchos enter the Thunderdome and Highlander territory with dominant players eager for a win at home and on the road. Senior captain and middle blocker Brett Quirarte leads the Gauchos with her .363 hitting clip, which is the third highest hitting average among Big West players and the 51st highest among Division I athletes. During the match against the Titans, Quirarte posted a .387 hitting percentange, 16 kills and three solo blocks. In addition, Quirarte has tallied 653 kills throughout her UCSB career and also ranks ninth with 247 block assists.

Junior co-captain and outside hitter Lauren McLaughlin will also be a threat to the Mustangs and Highlanders, as she posted 20 kills and 16 digs against the Titans, notching her 13th double-double of the season. McLaughlin is currently first on UCSB’s squad, second in the Big West and 46th nationally with her 4.54 kills per game average.

“[Cal Poly] has a lot of weapons and they do a great job. They are the best blocking and serving team in our conference, so that always puts added pressure,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “They have a quality team and we respect them. That doesn’t mean that we cannot play to their level. We have been practicing all week to lessen our mistakes and have the competitive edge consistently.”

Despite excellent players, the Gauchos will need to bring their best game as the Mustangs are in a three-way tie with Long Beach (10-5, 4-1 Big West) and Irvine (14-6, 4-1 Big West) for first place in conference play. The Mustangs lead the Big West with a team average of 3 blocks per game and 1.8 service aces per game. Cal Poly defeated the Gauchos twice last season, but UCSB still leads the series with a 39-18 record. UCSB will have to look out for junior middle blocker Jaclyn Houston, who leads the conference with her .383 clip and is first in blocks, averaging 1.34 per game. Santa Barbara will also have to key in on junior opposite Kylie Atherstone, who averages 4.39 kills per game and .47 service saves per game.

“Everyone is still playing hard because we are getting close to the end,” Gregory said. “We can play them and just because they are the number-one team in Big West, we are going to play them like everyone else,” Gregory said. “Nobody says that this team is too easy, so we shouldn’t put more effort or visa versa. We play hard and we play to win.”

Saturday’s game against the Highlanders will be a crucial match, as the Highlanders just snapped a five-match losing streak after obtaining a victory against Davis (3-14, 0-6 Big West), only to be swept by Pacific (10-4, 4-2 Big West) the next day. The Highlanders are led by senior middle blocker and outside hitter Angie Mitchell, who ranks fifth in the league with her .333 hitting clip and fourth in blocks with 1.28 per game, along with junior libero Kimberly McNeal, who leads Riverside with her 2.94 digs per game. The Gauchos may have the upper advantage, as they swept the Highlanders twice last season and boast an 18-0 all-time record against them.

“[Riverside] is playing better this year, so it should be an interesting game,” Gregory said. “They have good players and are pretty much at the same level as us. We respect them as a team, and we are going to compete with them.”