While the majority of UC Santa Barbara was tearing it up in Isla Vista this past weekend to celebrate Halloween, the UC Santa Barbara women’s volleyball team (8-3 overall, 18-5 Big West) was unleashing its own witchcraft in the Thunderdome, breaking out the broomsticks for a pair of sweeps over Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State – both teams they had lost to on the road earlier this season.
“When we played [Fullerton and Long Beach] at their places we were really sick, but we knew we would get back at them if they came to our house,” junior setter Dana Vargas said.
With a track record of slow starts and long-winded matches, many still questioned the Gauchos despite a resurgence that has brought them back to Big West prominence. After handing out straight-set defeats this past weekend, it might be safe to put these doubts to rest.
“It’s definitely been a change from all the other games we’ve been playing,” senior outside hitter Rebecca Saraceno said of the quick wins. “I think we definitely took the other teams by surprise.”
The sweep of Cal State Fullerton (13-10, 4-6) may have been a bit of a shock to both teams involved, as UCSB was on the wrong end of a three-set match between the two squads only a month ago. But with their full roster healthy and a markedly improved service game led by freshman outside hitter Leah Sully, Santa Barbara out-aced the Titans eight to one on the way to a hard-fought victory.
“Our serving has played a key role in all of the runs we had,” Saraceno said. “When we’re serving aggressively the other team has to tighten up their passing, making it easier for us to go inside out.”
Going from the inside out to all sides of the court was another area of improvement that allowed the Gauchos to defeat their adversaries in a dominating fashion. Instead of relying on Saraceno to carry the offensive load — a strategy that defenses have picked up on in recent weeks — Vargas made it a point to spread the ball around more evenly, providing a balanced attack that kept Long Beach (14-6, 7-3) off-balance.
Against the 49ers, Saraceno got hers with a match-high 16 kills, but the story of the game was the production of the Santa Barbara middle blockers. Junior Kasey Kipp and sophomores Stacey Schmidt and Lily Lopez combined for 23 kills to go along with nine block assists, shoring up a defensive front that has had its fair share of struggles this season.
“It was really important we established the middle and right side from the beginning,” Vargas said. “Every team is going to think, ‘we have to shut down Becca to beat UCSB,’ so it was nice to see our other girls step up and show that we have other options.”
Winners of seven of their last eight games, the Gauchos have leapfrogged from fourth to second in conference, but are still getting shortchanged on a national scale. In the latest AVCA Top 25 rankings, Santa Barbara is still on the outside looking in as the top vote-getting bubble team.
“[Not being ranked] is a bummer, but our main goal is to take out as many ranked teams as we can instead of worrying about our number,” Saraceno said.
For now, UCSB will keep its sights set on the last six games of the season as it battles for a Big West Championship.
“We see the light, we’re right there, but have to finish strong because we know every team wants to beat us,” Vargas said.