In the past week, the UCSB women’s volleyball team has proven that it can hang tough against Big West teams with better records, but their biggest test of the season awaits just up the coast, as the Gauchos travel to San Luis Obispo to take on #22 Cal Poly. This is a crucial game for Santa Barbara, as it attempts to get back into the thick of the Big West race and tries to make their way back to .500 within the conference.
UCSB (10-15 overall, 5-7 in the Big West) will enter Thursday night’s match with a season-high three-game conference-winning streak. In that span, the Gauchos were led by junior outside hitter Lauren McLaughlin, who recorded a combined total of 47 kills and 41 digs during the streak, bringing her season kill total to a league leading 430. With momentum on their side, in part by the team’s newfound ability to close out tight games, something that has frustrated the Gauchos all season, the Gauchos hope to pull off the upset.
Heading into SLO, the Gauchos will face a dominating Cal Poly (17-7, 11-1 Big West) team that is looking to expand upon their slim half-game lead over Long Beach State (18-6, 11-2 Big West) and tighten their vice-like grip over conference opponents. The Mustangs are currently riding an eight-game conference-winning streak, winning 12 out of their last 13 matches, with their last loss coming way back on September 28th against Pacific.
“One of Cal Poly’s main strengths is their All-American outside hitter and last year’s reigning Big West Player of the Year, Kylie Atherstone, leading them in kills,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “They also have great jump servers and the best blocking game in the conference. They are just an all around great team with no one glaring weakness.”
Last time UCSB and Cal Poly squared off, the Gauchos were able to take game one from the Mustangs, but then dropped the next three consecutive games losing the match 27-30, 30-28, 30-23, 30-26. In that match the UCSB out-dug the Mustangs 79 to 74 but hit at just a .160 clip, compared to Cal Poly’s team total of .305. Junior libero Leigh Stephenson had one of her best matches of the season against the Mustangs last time around, tallying 29 digs on the night. Stephenson, who ranks second in the conference with an impressive average of 5.21 digs per game, and the rest of the Gaucho defense will be tested on Thursday night, as they face the conference’s number one ranked blocking team, as well as the number two team in service aces.
“In the last meeting against Cal Poly, Leigh [Stephenson] had one of her best matches of the year,” Gregory said. “In order for us to compete against them, [Stephenson], as the libero, and the rest of the back row are going to have to dig exceptionally well and our outside hitters have to be consistent. After that the rest is just extra.”