Some of the best volleyball teams in the country – and one Canadian team – converged at Robertson Gymnasium this past weekend as the UCSB men’s volleyball team kicked off the 2008 season by hosting the 44th annual Elephant Bar Restaurant Collegiate Invitational.

“The tournament had several of the top 15 teams in the country, and Alberta is the number one team in Canada,” Head Coach Ken Preston said. “The competition was rough, but lots of the teams were trying to figure it out from last year, us included.”

The #14 Gauchos (1-2 overall) opened the tournament with two tough losses, but finished by taking down Pacific (0-2) in four games in the seventh-place game early Saturday morning.

UCSB opened its season by taking on last year’s National Champion, #5 UC Irvine (2-2) to start the tournament. The Gauchos opened the match with poor hitting, dropping the first two games 21-30 and 26-30, but managed to bounce back in the third, winning 30-28, only to fall in a frantic fourth game 33-35. Freshman outside hitter Jeff Menzel led the Gauchos with 21 kills, and junior setter Max Klineman dished out 54 assists during the match.

“The kids played hard, we just got in some serving trouble,” Preston said. “We pushed hard in the third game, and Menzel had a good match and we out-hit them. We were pleased, but we could never recover from the first two games.”

In the second game of the tournament, the Gauchos faced #7 Cal State Northridge (2-1). The momentum that UCSB held at the end of the Irvine game completely disappeared in this match as the Gauchos were swept 30-24, 30-24, 30-22. Menzel led the team with 15 kills, but was the only Gaucho to manage double-digit kills. UCSB was never able to get on track offensively. With just 28 kills and 24 hitting errors as a team, the Matadors never let the Gaucho frontline get in a groove.

“It was a disaster,” Preston said. “We just didn’t play well this match. Northridge plays a different style and they just took us apart. Unlike other teams, they really stick like glue to middle-hitters, so our hitters never got chances. With three guys with negative hitting percentages, you aren’t going to win many games.”

The Gauchos finally picked up their first win of the season in the final game of the tournament, defeating Pacific in four games 30-23, 30-17, 28-30, 30-25.

After keeping it close in the early stages of the first game, the Gauchos put together a 6-1 run against the Tigers, which made the score 28-21 in favor of the Gauchos, setting up the 30-23 victory. A 5-1 opening to the second game set the tone early in the Gauchos’ most dominating performance of the match. Fueled by eight of UCSB’s 17 total service aces on the match, the Gauchos cruised to a 30-17 victory. After dropping the third game 28-30, they closed the door on the Tigers in the fourth, winning 30-25. Menzel had 23 kills in the match, and freshman opposite Cullen Irons had a team-high five aces, while leading UCSB to the seventh-place finish.

Alberta became the eventual tournament champions by defeating #13 Stanford in four games: 26-30, 23-30, 30-21, 25-30.

After losing the Gaucho’s all-time aces leader and last year’s national kills leader, Evan Patak, UCSB has a young and unproven team.

“We should continue to improve,” Preston said. “We’re young, and we don’t have all the tactics just yet, but with five matches in 10 days, we will continue to work and improve.”