Watching the UC Santa Barbara women’s volleyball team this year, there is no questioning the team’s physical toughness. The players lay out for impossible digs, have towering lift on their verticals and spike the ball with both power and accuracy. But on Saturday night, the Gauchos proved something else after staging a three-set comeback against #21 UC Irvine: they have the mental toughness to match their on-court execution.

Down as much as eight points in the third set, the Gauchos (11-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big West), were clearly being outplayed by a talented Irvine offensive. When Head Coach Kathy Gregory used her final timeout down 13-5, it looked all but over for a UCSB squad that lost sets one and two to the Anteaters in heartbreaking fashion. But Gregory would not throw in the towel.

“I told them that we had to show some heart and fight with everything we had,” Gregory said. “I knew we had a chance as long as we could get a little momentum going.”

After some choice motivational words, there was no looking back. With a lopsided 19-11 score in favor of UCI, Santa Barbara stepped up their game for the Gaucho faithful in attendance at the Thunderdome, rattling off an 8-1 run to bring them back within striking distance. Freshman outside hitter Leah Sully, who slammed home seven aces for a new school record, led the charge.

“After Leah served seven in a row and Irvine took a timeout, I looked up at the board and couldn’t believe the score was 19-17,” junior setter Dana Vargas said. “Our backs were against the wall, but we weren’t going down without a fight.”

A battle is exactly what ensued, as both teams scratched and clawed their way to a 25-25 tie. But with the match on the line, sophomore middle blocker Stacey Schmidt came through with a crucial kill off one of Vargas’ 60 assists. One UCI attack error later, the Gauchos had the third set wrapped up and their sights set on an unprecedented comeback.

Led by senior outside hitter Rebecca Saraceno, who had a career night with 29 kills and 15 digs, UCSB claimed the fourth set 25-16 before upending Irvine 15-9 in the final set to bring the win full circle and extend their win streak to six in a row.

“After we dominated the fourth game, Irvine got a little tentative and realized that they were in a dog fight,” Gregory said. “After they jumped out to a small lead in the fifth, [Saraceno] stepped up and carried us to the finish.”
With yet another victory over a ranked opponent, the Gauchos have a legitimate shot at cracking the top 25 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll. But while national accolades are nice, Santa Barbara is more concerned with maintaining a formidable league record. And with a 2-0 mark in the Big West to sit on in the upcoming week of inactivity, the team has plenty of time to enjoy the spoils of victory.

“We kind of have a rivalry with Irvine, so pulling off the ultimate comeback was great,” Vargas said. “You really don’t see that in volleyball very often.”