A rejuvenated Gaucho lineup made a statement in the Elephant Bar Invitational this past weekend, laying a 3-0 shutout on #4 Long Beach State to take third in the tournament. National polls took notice, bumping up Santa Barbara’s #14 preseason ranking to #9 on Monday. Chances are #5 UC Irvine (3-1) also paid close attention, as they are at risk of becoming the next top-five team that UCSB (2-1 overall) brings down when the two teams face off tonight at 7p.m. in Robertson Gymnasium.
“They [Irvine] are always a really solid team, but we have been seriously preparing for them,” sophomore opposite Cullen Irons said.
There is no doubt that both teams have been preparing diligently for tonight’s match-up, as it marks both team’s first game in conference that will factor into Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) standings. Though Irvine has some momentum coming in with an impressive sweep of #8 UCLA to take fifth in last weekend’s tournament, they were also swept 3-0 in their tournament opener at the hands of Long Beach.
“I think we have the mental edge because we swept Long Beach, but we have to stay physical for the whole game if we want to come out on top,” Irons said.
Taking down the Anteaters will certainly require a high level of both mental focus and physical execution, especially considering that Santa Barbara has dropped their past seven matches against them including a loss near the end of last season that eliminated them from postseason contention for the first time since 2003.
The Gauchos have several players ready to serve up another upset in their new starting roles, including junior opposite Jake Rosener and sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter, who are second and third on the team in kills with 33 and 22 respectively.
“Everybody on the team is improving rapidly,” McLaughlin said. “Most teams are going to try and focus on Jeff [Menzel], which leaves our other guys with lots of opportunities.”
There is a great chance that tonight’s game will come down to the performance of sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel, who is averaging an unbelievable 22 kills per match so far this season. Menzel is quickly establishing himself as one of the top players in the MPSF.
“It’s no secret that Jeff’s our go-to-guy, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stop him,” Irons said.