The UCSB men’s volleyball team proved it can play at the highest level this past weekend, putting together some of its best moments of the season in two games against BYU. Friday even saw Santa Barbara earn its first win of the conference season, and the first against the Cougars since 2005. And while the Gauchos could not pull out a win on Saturday, the weekend’s experience certainly gave them a whole lot to build on.
“Those were some of the best games we’ve played all season,” sophomore opposite Cullen Irons said. Irons, who set his career high with 16 kills Friday night and nearly equaled it with 15 on Saturday, added that the key for Santa Barbara is going to be to “figure out how to play like that for entire matches.”
Irons has a point. Inconsistency was the name of the game in the two matches against BYU, and the result was a thrilling weekend split. The Gauchos might just have been a little more thrilled with a weekend sweep.
The first match started off altogether on the wrong foot for the home squad, as the Gauchos dropped the first two sets 30-27 en route to what appeared to be an easy BYU victory. Each game saw the Cougars steadily establishing a lead late and UCSB had no answer.
Then, in the third set, something changed. Tied 22-22, it was Santa Barbara that began to pull away. The Gauchos went on a three-point run to make it 25-22 under the serve of freshman outside hitter Blaine Nielsen, and never lost the lead again, winning 30-27.
Game four saw UCSB jump out to a five-point lead late, only to nearly squander it. Going from up 25-20 to only 28-27, Head Coach Rick McLaughlin called a time-out, and the Gauchos calmed their nerves and earned the next two points to tie the match up.
The decisive fifth set was all Gauchos, as UCSB cruised to a 15-12 victory with the crowd behind it all the way. The exciting victory was Santa Barbara’s first MPSF win this season — a feat it would look to duplicate the following night.
However, Saturday would prove to be less kind. After splitting the first two sets 29-31 and 31-29, UCSB played its best volleyball of the year, pulverizing the Cougars 30-15.
With a 2-1 set lead, Santa Barbara looked to put away BYU in round four. But it was Brigham Young University that came on strong, dismantling the Gaucho block in a 30-24 showing.
With everything on the line in the fifth set, UCSB was unable to come through. BYU cruised to an anticlimactic 15-8 game, and the home side was undone. One might think fatigue was a factor — the Gauchos never used a sub in the entire game — but sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel adamantly denies it, citing the countless hours of training the team does every week. Menzel must have been a bit tired though, seeing as he posted a whopping 29 kills in the second match and a ridiculous 60 swings.
“There’s hardly anyone in the league that can stop [Menzel],” Irons said. “When he’s in a rhythm it’s scary.”
Even with the loss in the second game, the team is optimistic about things to come.
“It’s a mental thing,” Irons said. “We need to know that we’re a great team and when we’re clicking there’s no one that can stop us.”
In certain sets this weekend, that was all too apparent. Now UCSB just needs to make it consistent.
Next up for Santa Barbara is a Friday night match against UC San Diego, followed by a Saturday showing against Long Beach State. Both will be in Santa Barbara’s Robertson Gymnasium, and each is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.