What a difference a year can make. Following an unkind 2008 campaign that tagged them with their second losing season in school history, a revamped UCSB women’s volleyball team enters league play tomorrow against UC Riverside with a formidable 9-2 record. More importantly, the Gauchos begin their conference matchups with a renewed commitment to playing like a team — one that by all rights has the talent to contend for the Big West title.

“After last season, I made some changes in how I coached the team on a personal level,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “I made a commitment for us to have better conditioning and to have the foundation for body, mind and soul.”

The adjustments made in the preseason have translated into vast improvements on the court, as Santa Barbara’s balanced attack has them riding the momentum of a four-game win streak into tomorrow’s Big West opener. Not bad for a team that Coach Gregory described as one of the most unselfish she has coached in years.

“We all play together and want each other to excel,” junior outside hitter Charlene DeHoog said. “When we’re all in it together, we have the passion to go out there and win every single game.”

All signs point to UCSB staying on the winning track, as UC Riverside (1-8) comes in never having won a match in the two team’s 22 meetings. But despite their shaky record, the Gauchos will by no means take their opponent lightly.

“The Big West has improved a lot this year, so you can’t take a night off from top to bottom,” Gregory said. “[UC Riverside’s] record is misleading, because they are actually the number one blocking team in the nation.”

After what is expected to be a physical match against UCR, the home team welcomes their first true conference test in #21 UC Irvine, a team they have failed to defeat in their previous five matches. Though the Anteaters are loaded with ability on the outside, the Gauchos counter with arguably the Big West’s best outside hitter in senior Rebecca Saraceno. The veteran from Redondo Beach, Calif. currently leads the team with 184 kills while ranking second with 116 digs and 12 service aces.

“Rebecca is doing everything for us this season,” Gregory said. “She’s always involved in the action and never takes breaks.”

Another player to watch is junior setter Dana Vargas, who has elevated her game to new heights in her junior year, already capturing tournament honors twice this season.
“Dana has grown so much in the last two years,” DeHoog said. “Her court awareness is great, and she’s really becoming a leader of this team.”

Though a weekend sweep would be ideal, the Gauchos are most concerned about their own performance game-to-game. If they can outplay their rivals like they have so far this season, the rest should fall into place.

“With any team we play, go in there and worry about ourselves,” DeHoog said. “If we stay focused on that, we can beat anyone.”