As the sun set on September, life could not have gotten better in the world of UC Santa Barbara women’s volleyball. With the ghosts of two losing seasons in their peripheral, the Gauchos had rattled off a season-high six straight wins to begin Big West play 2-0, including a three-set comeback against #21 UC Irvine in one of the most electrifying volleyball games ever to grace the Thunderdome.
But just as UCSB was ready to break into the AVCA Top 25 national rankings, the onset of October brought with it a flu that ravaged the Santa Barbara roster. An epidemic of missed practices and lack of overall preparation translated to a pair of road losses to Cal State Fullerton and #22 Long Beach State, evening their league record in a very balanced conference.
This weekend, the Gauchos (16-5 overall, 6-3 Big West) will aim to avenge these losses as they welcome both the Fullerton Titans (12-9, 3-5) and the Long Beach 49ers (13-5, 6-2) to the Thunderdome. Winners of five of their last six, a healthy UCSB squad is chomping at the bit for a shot at redemption.
“Almost the whole team was affected that week everyone got sick,” senior outside hitter Becca Saraceno said. “Bouncing back against these two teams is just what we need to move forward.”
Their previous loss to CSUF — the only time Santa Barbara has been swept this season — is a memory best left behind for all of the Gauchos. Against a team that excels in the same areas of offense and speed, a stagnant UCSB was thoroughly outplayed, losing in straight sets 25-23, 25-22 and 25-21. This time around, the home team realizes they have to step up the intensity.
“Last time we played [Fullerton] the energy was dead and we weren’t executing,” Saraceno said. “This time, we need to come together as a team and stay aggressive.”
A large part of working as a collective unit weighs on the balance between Saraceno and her teammates. The four-time Big West Player of the Week for 2009 continues to dominate the attack despite having multiple defenders on the block, but an even distribution on the floor has been vital to UCSB’s recent success.
“Every team knows that we’re going to Becca, so [the Titans] were camping out on her,” junior setter Dana Vargas said. “We know that we can’t win just with Becca, so getting the ball to the middle and right side should open up a lot of opportunities.”
After playing a crafty team that mirrors their own, Santa Barbara will need to switch gears against Long Beach, a taller team that is known for its defense that ranks first in the league with 15.8 digs per set. On top of utilizing their quickness to match the 49ers defensively, the Gauchos will have to key in on senior outside hitter Naomi Washington, whose four kills per set put her third in all of the Big West. Washington tallied a match-high 23 kills the last time these teams clashed.
“We need to find a way to shut [Washington] down,” Saraceno said. “If we take her out of the offense [the 49ers] won’t be nearly as effective.”
With wins in these upcoming games, the Gauchos have a legitimate shot at cracking the AVCA Top 25, as they are currently on the bubble for the second time this season. And with their confidence and chemistry at a premium, the team sees no reason they cannot accomplish this feat. Still, the focus remains on coming away with victory, regardless of national recognition.
“I don’t think we’ve peaked yet, but we’re getting there,” Vargas said.
“We’ve got to turn it on,” Vargas said. “This is our time.”