The curse of the Anteaters lives on. Up two sets to one with all the momentum in the world on their side of the court playing at the Bren Events Center in the beautifully uniform city of Irvine, the underdog Gauchos looked primed to take down #3 UC Irvine (11-2, 7-1 MPSF) and say goodbye to their three-game losing streak. Unfortunately for Santa Barbara, the resilient 2007 national champions hung tough to take down set number four in extras 31-29, before wrapping things up with a 3-0 run to close out the fifth and final set 15-12.
With only one Mountain Pacific Sports Federation win to their credit about a third of the way through the conference season, a win over one of the top teams in the country would have done wonders for the confidence of a young squad coming off two five-set heartbreakers to BYU and UC San Diego. Instead, the Gauchos were left shaking their heads and wondering what could have been in yet another stymied loss that went the distance. Despite the outcome, the overall team chemistry was clocking on all cylinders.
“We played really well and were consistent the entire time,” sophomore opposite Cullen Irons said. “We passed extremely well, came down with a lot of big points, and in my opinion played better than those guys [the Anteaters].”
After dropping the first set to Irvine, most would have counted the Gauchos out, especially considering the convincing four-set stomping the Anteaters laid on Santa Barbara back in January, playing virtually flawless volleyball in the final two sets of that match in Robertson Gymnasium. However, the less than comfortable 30-28 score in the opening game was indicative of the fierce competition yet to unfold.
After a slow start coming out of the gates in set two left the road team trailing 4-1 early, a determined UC Santa Barbara battled back-and-forth with UCI, trading points before ultimately coming out on top 30-27. The momentum carried over to set number three, where a rejuvenated Santa Barbara lineup maintained a miniscule lead before an Irvine comeback gave the Anteaters a one-point lead at 30-29. With the game on the line, sophomore outside hitter Jeff Menzel obliterated the ball for one of his match-high 27 kills to tie things up, before two assisted roofs from sophomore middle blocker Scott Slaughter – who finished by matching a career-high with 10 blocks — gave Santa Barbara the third set, 32-30.
“Scott had another big game for us out there,” Irons said. “He did a great for us on defense, playing up to the blocking of Irvine that was there all night.”
Going into the fourth set gunning for their biggest win of the season, the Gaucho offensive attack that was also there for them all night eluded them in the waning moments, as two offensive miscues – one by serve and one by attack – gave the game to the Anteaters, setting UCSB up for the final set that has been unforgiving in recent games. Despite past end-game shortcomings, the Gauchos were optimistic heading in.
“It [the fourth set] just slipped out of our reach, so even though we lost that fourth set we were feeling really good and had all the confidence we possibly could have,” Irons said.
Confidence may not have been lacking, but the killer instinct belonged to UCI on Wednesday night. After a combined block from Slaughter and Irons knotted up the score at 12 apiece, Irvine closed things out by recording the final three points of the match, though not without controversy. According to Irons, the final point was stolen from the Gauchos following a questionable call from a referee.
“Jeff [Menzel] took a wild swing on a ball that went out of bounds, but one of the Irvine guys went into the net before the ball even got close to hitting the ground,” Irons said of the infraction that should have given UCSB the point. “I guess it happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Despite several impressive individual performances, notably that of senior outside hitter Mike Runkle who recorded a Gaucho season-high with 22 digs filling in for injured sophomore libero Andy McGuire, a win would most certainly have been sweeter than any individual accolades.
“I think we were playing near our full potential tonight,” Irons said. “Everything was good except for the final result.”