They may not have won the tournament, but finishing third in a group of eight of the top teams in the nation was definitely a great way to kick off the 2009 season for UCSB men’s volleyball.

Sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel recorded a match high in kills in all three matches, leading the Gauchos to a 2-1 record in the Elephant Bar Invitational including a convincing 3-0 sweep over #4 Long Beach State on Saturday. Despite entering the tournament ranked higher than only Pacific, #14 Santa Barbara proved that they are back and ready to compete despite being a young team and having a new head coach.

“It’s very important to start off on the right foot, because it shows he [Head Coach Rick McLaughlin] knows what he’s doing, and shows that we know how to work with the new system,” sophomore opposite Cullen Irons said. “We’re much faster on offense, have a scrappier defense and focus on all the little things so the big things come easy.”

Santa Barbara’s new-look lineup boasted a well-rounded attack in their opening match of the tournament against Pacific, receiving contributions from junior opposite Jake Rosener (16 kills) and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Trey Valbuena (13 kills), who benefited from 58 assists by sophomore setter Vince Devany. After dropping the first set to the Tigers, the Gauchos offense kicked things up a notch, winning the next three sets with Menzel (21 kills) leading the way.

“Our entire team was unbelievable this weekend,” sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter said. “When we win, it’s usually a combined effort involving all six players on the court.”

It was the lack of consistency from all of their starters that led to the Gaucho ‘s loss in their second tournament match against #5 Cal State Northridge, the eventual champions of the invitational. Menzel recorded 27 kills but did not get enough from his teammates while a Northridge squad that saw three players reach double figures in kills won it in four sets.

“We got into a couple ruts but it was their serving that really beat us,” Slaughter said.

A well-oiled Santa Barbara offense returned to form in their Saturday finale, taking down the heavily favored 49ers in straight sets. The Gaucho defense stepped up their play to complement the offense, more than doubling Long Beach in blocks with a 17-8 advantage. Menzel continued to be a force with 18 kills, joined by Rosener and Slaughter in double digits with ten apiece. Both Menzel and Slaughter were named to the all-tournament team.

“Scott showed up big time against Long Beach,” Irons said. “It seemed like he was making contact with everything that was coming over the net.”

With a successful tournament showing under their belt, Santa Barbara has plenty of confidence and high hopes for the postseason entering conference play this Wednesday against Irvine, but are taking nothing for granted with the season just getting underway.

“We’ve grown a lot, even in this last weekend learning we can compete with the best of them,” Slaughter said. “We have to treat every team we go up against as number one and give it everything we’ve got every time we step on the court.”