When the #14 UCSB men’s volleyball team steps foot onto #7 UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion court today, more than just a bitter rivalry will be running through the Gauchos’ minds.
With just four games left on the schedule, the Gauchos (9-14 overall, 6-12 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) currently sit in 10th place in the conference standings, trailing #13 Hawaii by a game and #9 Irvine by two for the eighth and final playoff spot. Having won just one out of the last eight conference matches, the Gauchos will look to use this final road match versus the Bruins (15-11, 10-8 MPSF) as a momentum builder for their playoff push. With just a 1-9 record away from home, the Gauchos will have their work cutout for them.
“I think we have to treat every match as a must win,” Associate Head Coach Lee Nelson said. “When you look at it, we are going to have to win three out of four or four out of four to get into the playoffs. Having three of our final four games at home definitely helps, but the match against the Bruins will be a great test for road wins. We need to learn to win on the road, whether that’s this year, next year, or anytime, you have to learn to win on the road.”
In the teams’ last meeting the Gauchos out-muscled the Bruins in four games. The Bruins’ tandem of junior opposite Sean O’Malley and sophomore outside Garrett Muagututia both managed to knock in double-digit kills in the match, but the Gauchos countered with three players recording over ten kills. Freshman outside hitter Jeff Menzel crushed a match high 21 kills and both junior outside hitter Mike Runkle and senior middle Theo Brunner reached double-digits in the match. This offensive firing proved to be overpowering as the Gauchos out hit Bruins .341 to .253.
“In our last meeting against the Bruins we disrupted their offense by giving them passing trouble and serving well, but in order to come out with another win we are going to have to pass consistently and block well ourselves,” Nelson said. “Their place is a tough arena to play in and to leave with a win is difficult. It’s never easy, but possible.”
The Gauchos will look for a complete team effort to defeat the Bruins. Menzel leads the Gauchos with a 4.7 kills per game average on the season with Brunner second on the team sporting a 3.48 kpg average. Since freshman setter Vince Devany waived his redshirt status and overtook the setting duties for the Gauchos he has passed for an efficient .461 assist percentage while leading the team in assists during that span. Devany will need to spread the attack for the Gauchos to be successful in tonight’s match.
“We are a team that has to move the ball around,” Nelson said. “To beat UCLA we’re going to have to be more than just Menzel and Theo [Brunner], it’s going to have to be a total team effort. Runkle has been passing great and hit over .400 in both games against [Brigham Young University], so we will look to get him and everyone else involved in the offense.”
Ten out of the top-15 teams in the nation play in the MPSF, making it the toughest conference in the nation. If the Gauchos are going to go deep into the playoffs – if they manage to get there – they will have to prove that they can win on the road, making tonight’s match a crucial test that can decide the rest of their season.