The odds were stacked against the Gauchos going up against the #2 ranked team in the nation, and Cal State Northridge (6-0 overall, 3-0 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) did not disappoint in their first game in front of a home crowd on Friday, downing #10 UC Santa Barbara (2-4 overall, 0-3 in the MPSF) in straight sets.
“They definitely played like they were one of the top teams in the country,” sophomore right side hitter Cullen Irons said. “They played their game and stayed consistent all the way through.”
Consistency has not been a problem whatsoever for the Matadors through the early part of the season, seen through their flawless record that includes a tournament win at Santa Barbara’s own Elephant Bar Invitational that kicked off the 2008-09 campaign. Their convincing wins against UCLA and UC Irvine, the teams that have accounted for the Gauchos first two conference losses, would serve as an omen to a rebuilding UCSB squad that found themselves in over their heads against a loaded CSU Northridge lineup.
UCSB’s only lead in the first set would come at 2-1, as senior outside hitter Mike Runkle and sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter combined to stuff sophomore opposite Tanner Nua. From there on out it was all Northridge, with the Matadors putting on a 5-0 spurt already leading 16-12 to put the set out of reach. Northridge would counter Santa Barbara’s early stuff on Nua with a combined block of its own on sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel to end the first set 30-21.
Despite leading the team in kills for the sixth straight game, Menzel finished with a season-low 13 kills. With the Matador defense focusing their efforts towards shutting down the offensive charge of the Santa Barbara bull, Menzel could only manage a .147 attack percentage.
“Northridge’s defense was really keying in on him [Menzel], double, triple committing to him at times,” Irons said. “It opened up a lot of hits for me, Scott [Slaughter] and everyone else. Jeff had a good game; it’s just not always reflected in the stats.”
Though Menzel’s performance did not show up too strong on paper, the play of Irons, a newcomer to the Gauchos rotation, helped the Gauchos stay competitive in the final two sets. After junior right side hitter Jake Rosener was pulled from the game by Head Coach Rick McLaughlin in the first set, Irons went to work, recording 10 kills and four digs, both good for second on the team.
“I’ve just been waiting for my opportunity and finally got it,” Irons said. “I did everything I could to make an impact, and I think I showed coach what I can do when I’m out there.”
Irons and Menzel also received some offensive support from Slaughter and Runkle, who finished with eight and six kills respectively. Sophomore setter Vince Devany anchored the offense with 34 assists, while sophomore libero Andy McGuire matched Northridge’s libero with a match-high nine digs.
Unfortunately for the Gauchos, improved team play would only lead to a back-and-forth with the Matadors until the midway point in the final two sets before Northridge built up leads for good, taking down set two 30-25 and set three 30-27.
Still searching for their first win in conference, UCSB will look to turn things around as they return home for a back-to-back with #9 BYU this upcoming weekend. Hopefully, the top tier competition they have faced thus far has them primed for a victorious home stand.