Fresh off their first win in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation against BYU last Friday, the UCSB men’s volleyball team is set to resume and wrap up its four-game homestand, first taking on #15 UC San Diego (3-5 overall, 1-4 in the MPSF) before facing off against #7 Long Beach State (4-4 overall, 3-2 in the MPSF). With aspirations to climb its way back into conference contention, Santa Barbara (3-5 overall, 1-4 in the MPSF) is gunning for its first back-to-back wins of the season.
“We desperately needed a win [last weekend]…we’ve been in every game that we’ve lost but just couldn’t pull it out until the BYU game,” sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter said. “With two wins we’d be right back in [the] middle of pack [in the MPSF].”
Defeating the Tritons should be well within UCSB’s reach, as UCSD is a perennial MPSF bottom feeder, with the Gauchos holding a 23-2 all-time series edge. Long Beach on the other hand should prove to be significantly harder to surmount. When the home team took down the 49ers in straight sets to take third in the season opening Elephant Bar Invitational, LBSU was playing without junior opposite Dean Bittner, perhaps the team’s deadliest weapon. Despite missing the early season match versus the Gauchos, Bittner has accumulated a team-leading 159 kills. A repeat sweep this Saturday would undeniably exceed all expectations.
“I doubt it’ll be a sweep because when we played them they didn’t have Dean Bittner, who we know is going to make [a] pretty big impact,” Slaughter said. “It [the match] will probably go to four, maybe even five sets.”
Bittner will meet his match with Santa Barbara’s sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel, who continues to murder the ball both literally and figuratively, leading the nation in kills with 5.74 per set. Although opposing middle blockers have been concentrating on halting the onslaught of the physical phenom, it does not appear that Menzel is slowing down as he established a new career-high with 29 kills against the Cougars last Saturday.
“Having Jeff on the team definitely helps everyone,” Slaughter said. “They key in on him during most plays, which puts us in position to sneak in for some kills.”
The chief benefactor of Menzel’s dominance in UCSB’s win last Friday was sophomore opposite Cullen Irons, who notched a career-high 16 kills to go with seven digs and four block assists. Irons, along with high-energy freshman outside hitter Blaine Nielsen, have gained Head Coach Rick McLaughlin’s confidence as shown through increased playing time.
“Cullen’s an absolute giant with a huge vertical,” Slaughter said. “Whoever coach decides to put out there has the ability to make [an] impact.”
Individual accolades aside, making an impact on the win column is the main goal for the Gauchos this weekend. First serve for both Friday and Saturday’s contest is set for 7 p.m. in Robertson Gym.