This past weekend, there were two sides to the UC Santa Barbara women’s volleyball team. Against #19 UC Irvine, there was the team that we have grown accustomed to — a team that fails to start strong, but makes up for its early woes with a thrlling late-game surge. Against UC Riverside, there was the team that has only shown itself on rare occasion — a team that starts with energy and finishes sets before letting its opponents back in the game.
No matter how you spin it, the Gauchos (16-5 overall, 6-3 Big West) of both brands were able to come out with crucial road wins, defeating #19 UCI in five sets on Friday before sweeping UCR on Saturday for their fifth win in their last six matches. The Friday win over the Anteaters marked UCSB’s second straight comeback over a top-25 ranked UCI squad.
“Our other win [against UC Irvine] was more sensational, but in this road game there was definitely more pressure with it being later in the season and on the road … but we found a way to win,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said.
It did not look good for Santa Barbara from the start, opening with a trademark low energy that led to an astonishing 11 attack errors in the first set, three of which came from star senior outside hitter Rebecca Saraceno. After seeing their score doubled at 20-10, it was all but over for the Gauchos, falling in convincing fashion with a 24-15 final.
“We came out slow, and had one of our worst sets of the season in terms of efficiency,” Gregory said.
Though set number one was not in the cards, UCSB bounced back from a familiar position, sandwiching 25-22 wins in sets two and four with a 17-25 loss in set three. With a set count knotted at 2-2, a fifth and final period would be needed for the eighth time in their 20-match old season.
With experience on their side, Santa Barbara went to work in its favorite period, turning a 4-4 tie into an 8-4 lead with four consecutive kills behind freshman setter Nicole Favreau at serve. Leading by the same margin at 13-9 with the game two points from conclusion, the Anteaters put forth their own rally to send the deciding set into extra points. With the score tied at 17 all, the cannon-like arm of Saraceno spelled the end for Irvine, as the Big West Player of the Week fired home two straight sets from junior setter Dana Vargas to put the match away. After having more attack errors than kills in the opening set, the Gauchos rebounded with the game on the line, combining for 16 kills to only two attack errors in an action-packed fifth.
“It was like magic in the fifth [set],” Gregory said. “After having one of our worst sets, we followed with one of our best.”
After her pair of successful spikes to end the game, Saraceno finished one off of her career-high — a mark set in her last meeting with Irvine — with 28 kills despite having two UCI blockers sent her direction with regularity. Despite the heavy defensive pressure, her teammates remained confident in her offensive attack, sending nearly half of their total sets her way.
“If we are going to go five sets, you have to go to your top hitter, and [Saraceno] was not going to be denied,” Gregory said. “This performance is even better than her last [against Irvine] with multiple defenders coming at her.”
Though fatigue should have been a factor playing the Highlanders after a back-breaking two and a half hour game plus travel, the road team proved to be road warriors in the second leg of its two-game swing. Rather than letting themselves get down, the Gauchos flooded the Riverside Student Recreation Center with energy, leading the first set nearly the entire way before taking it down 25-19. The impressive effort in the first set was repeated in a victorious 25-22 second, before a late comeback in the third sealed the deal in a Santa Barbara sweep.
“It was great that we came out strong, but even better that we finished what we started in the second and third sets,” Gregory said.
Regardless of how it happened, back-to-back wins were exactly what the doctor ordered for a team jockeying for position in a talent-laden Big West Conference. Currently fourth in league standings but second in overall win percentage, UCSB will look to continue its roll in a return home to the Thunderdome where the team is 7-1 this year.