The Gauchos return home for the first time in five games this weekend when they play host to UC Irvine on Friday and Cal State Northridge on Saturday, two teams Santa Barbara beat earlier this season.

[media-credit name=”Daniel Wade” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“It’s nice to be coming back home, especially for the players during midterm time,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “But both of these teams are improving and we can’t take them lightly. The Big West is competitive and every team is tougher the second time around.”

UCSB (11-9 overall, 5-2 Big West) is currently tied for second in the conference with Long Beach State, and one game behind first place Cal State Fullerton. The squad’s 5-2 record equals that of this time last year, when the Gauchos finished in second place with an 11-5 league record.

“We like where we are at coming into this weekend,” senior setter Dana Vargas said. “We have to just take this weekend one game at a time and play our game.”

UC Irvine (5-15 overall, 1-6 Big West) enters the weekend in eighth place. The Gauchos won a shutout game against the Anteaters earlier this season and have beaten them a total of 63 times — the squad’s most wins versus any opponent.

Cal State Northridge (9-13 overall, 2-5 Big West) comes into the weekend as the seventh place team in the conference, fresh off a win at Irvine. Earlier this year, the Gauchos beat Northridge 3-2 in a close five game match. Last season, UCSB shut out the Matadors 3-0 in both of the teams’ meetings.

“The biggest key to the weekend for us is our all-around consistency,” Gregory said. “We want our serving to be better and we want to improve our offense by spreading the court a little bit more.”

With Santa Barbara’s depth, spreading the court should not be too difficult. Vargas is currently fourth in the Big West and 39th in the nation with an average of 10.68 assists per game. Senior outside hitter Charlene DeHoog leads the Gauchos and is seventh in the conference with 3.17 kills per set. Junior middle blocker Stacey Schmidt is averaging 3.08 kills per set, and freshman outside hitter Kara Sherrard has been impressive thus far, posting three consecutive double-doubles in the last three games.

“We are definitely ready to play this weekend,” Vargas said. “We have been working hard and improving all week and are looking to get a couple of wins.”

First serve is set for 7 p.m. in the Thunderdome.