Neither the UCSB women’s volleyball team nor UC Riverside stood to gain much from Saturday night’s match at the Thunderdome.
Riverside shares last place with Cal State Northridge in the conference. The Gauchos, who will most likely miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight year, had already secured sixth place. For the Gaucho seniors, the match was their last. Just another Senior Night at the end of another disappointing season.
But at least they made it count.
After losing 16-25 in the first set, the Gauchos won three straight sets 25-12, 25-23, 25-23 to clinch the victory. Senior outside hitter Lauren McLaughlin hit 21 kills, including a thunderous, season ending cross-court hit in the fourth set. She ended her career in seventh place on the all-time Gaucho career kills list and posted a team-leading 14 digs in her final match.
“It was a hell of a way to go out,” Assistant Coach Greg Gibbons said. “We wish we could have been in the NCAA’s, but to hit a kill like that, it’s a great way to finish.”
The win snapped the Gauchos’ five-match losing streak – their last loss was a heartbreaker to UC Irvine in five sets on Friday night – and gave the team a 7-9 conference record to end the season.
“The match against Irvine was one of the best we’ve played,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “But we had no offense in the fifth set.”
Long Beach State clinched the conference title and an automatic bid to the NCAA’s after sweeping Cal State Fullerton on Saturday night. After beating UCSB and Cal Poly this weekend, UC Irvine finished in second, becoming the Big West team most likely to earn an at-large bid.
In Saturday’s match, UC Riverside hit .333 in the first set. After the Gauchos took a 1-0 lead, Riverside went on a 7-2 run and the Gauchos never recovered.
“Riverside is the hardest working team in the league,” senior libero Leigh Stephenson said. “They can come up and beat you when you least expect it.”
Riverside’s Kelly Fink led the Highlanders with 19 kills. Highlander Dominique Cowling hit 15 kills and led all players with 17 digs.
Gaucho freshman Lily Lopez held serve for eight straight points in the second set, pushing the lead to 18-5. UCSB never trailed in the second game. Lopez hit seven kills in the match.
“I could tell we were ready to pick it up,” McLaughlin said. “We [really] wanted to go out with the win.”
In the third, Riverside held a 20-17 lead before the Gauchos went on a 4-2 run. A McLaughlin kill tied the score at 22. Sophomore middle blocker Kasey Kipp hit a kill to put the Gauchos ahead at 24-23, and Lopez blocked a Highlander spike to win the set.
The Highlanders trailed for most of the fourth set before tying the score at 20. They took a 21-20 lead after a Gaucho timeout. McLaughlin hit three kills down the stretch – including the game-ending one – to clinch the match.
Freshman outside hitter Nikki Doyle hit a career high four service aces in the match. Sophomore Dana Vargas hit 42 assists and 12 digs.
“It was a good senior night,” Gregory said. “The season ended on a good note.”