After four straight losses to begin the season, the UCSB men’s volleyball team has won four of its last six decisions, including a three-game road winning streak to improve to 4-3 in Mountain Pacific Sports Federation league play.

“I am very proud of the guys. We have been working our asses off in practice and it’s finally starting to show in the way we play,” junior outside hitter Jeff Menzel said.

If the Gauchos are to continue their solid play of late, they are going to have to temper the second place USC Trojans, who visit Santa Barbara Friday night. The Trojans started the season 4-0, but have struggled in recent games, losing two matches in a row; first to Pepperdine and then to first-place CSUN.

“At this point I consider all of our games to be a test for us,” Menzel said of the approaching USC game. “We are getting better, but there is always room for improvement.”

At the end of January, the Gauchos polished off a four-game road trip with three straight wins, beating #4 Irvine, #2 Stanford and Pacific. The streak was the team’s first since February 2008.

“The wins showed ourselves that we have the ability to win on the road in tough circumstances. We have the personnel to beat these teams,” Menzel said.

After playing the maximum five sets in five of their first six matches, the Gauchos made swift work of their opponents over the winning streak, beating their opponents 3-1, 3-1 and 3-0, respectively.

“Our confidence is off the charts right now,” Menzel said. “We have gotten to the point where we know and expect we should win, which was absolutely not the case last year.”

In the wake of Santa Barbara’s success, junior opposite hitter Cullen Irons was named MPSF Molten Player of the Week and Athlete of the Week for the last week of January. In Santa Barbara’s win over #2 Stanford, Irons posted 22 kills while hitting a season high .375 attack percentage. He then broke that season-high in the Gauchos’ win over Pacific when he hit .429 for a match-high 15 kills.

The winning streak came to an end Wednesday night when the Gauchos fell to Pepperdine 3-2. Santa Barbara had the Waves on the ropes with a 2-0 set lead but couldn’t close them out.

“It is hard to give one away to Pepperdine, but we live and learn,” Menzel said. “The end of the season is where we need to peak, so I love the position we are in to get there.”

Menzel continues to lead Santa Barbara, and all of the MPSF for that matter, with 5.28 kills per set and 211 total kills, while second place has only 186 kills. Junior libero Andy McGuire is currently second in the league in digs per game with 2.95 and first in total digs, with 118. Additionally, Gaucho junior setter Vince Devany leads the MPSF in assists with 516 and is sixth in assists per game, at 12.90.

After starting the season ranked #14, Santa Barbara has improved its national ranking after every week of the 2010 season. The Gauchos advanced to #11 and then finally to #10, where they currently sit.

Picked to finish 10th in the MPSF, the Gauchos are currently tied for third place. A win over the second place Trojans would catapult UCSB even higher in the standings.

“We need to focus on the next team we have to beat instead of where we are after a loss or win,” Menzel said. “Standings only matter at the end of the season … right now, all that matters is winning.”

First serve for the UCSB/USC clash is set for tonight at 7:30 in Robertson Gymnasium.