UCSB women’s volleyball rose to the top of the Big West conference this weekend after two home wins over UC Irvine on Friday and Cal State Northridge on Saturday.

[media-credit id=20125 align=”alignleft” width=”186″][/media-credit]“It feels great to come out of this weekend with two wins,” senior setter Dana Vargas said. “We have been working really hard lately and it paid off.”

Santa Barbara (13-9 overall, 7-2 Big West) moved a half game ahead of Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State after Long Beach beat Fullerton on Saturday.

UCSB cruised through the first two sets against the Matadors (9-15, 2-7). Tied at six in the first game, Santa Barbara went on a eight-point run to take a 14-6 lead. The Matadors got as close as 23-19 late in the set, but UCSB closed it out 25-19 after two Northridge errors.

The Gauchos, fueled by five runs of at least three points each, easily took the second game from Northridge 25-13.

The third set, though, has given the Gauchos fits all season. UCSB is 7-14 in third sets this year, dropping the set in both of its last two games, including Friday against Irvine.

“The third game is a game where you can completely lose or gain momentum,” Vargas said. “Coming out of the break, whether you are ahead or behind, it’s important to remain focused.”

Northridge proved to be a tough out for the Gauchos. Santa Barbara led by as many as five points at 15-10 before the Matadors battled back to cut the deficit to two at 22-20, forcing a Gaucho timeout.

“I saved our timeouts because I thought we may need to refocus there at the end of that fourth game to close it out,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “We have to show that we can withstand a small comeback and that we have the mental toughness to close out a good team.”

Coming out of the break, Northridge won four out of the next six points to tie the score at 24-24, forcing extra points. Out of another UCSB timeout, the Gauchos ended the match emphatically at 26-24 after a kill from senior middle blocker Kasey Kipp and a combined Kipp and Vargas block.

“Any team in our league can beat anybody, and we need to close out teams when we have them down,” freshman outside hitter Kara Sherrard said.

Kipp tallied nine kills with no hitting errors. Vargas posted a double-double with 29 assists and 11 digs, and senior outside hitter Charlene DeHoog led the team with 10 kills.

Led by Vargas, UCSB ousted UC Irvine (5-16, 1-7) on Friday, 3-1. Vargas had a career day, almost posting a triple-double with 48 assists, a career-high nine kills and eight digs.

Santa Barbara took a 2-0 advantage after taking the first set 25-20 and dominating the Anteaters in the second, 25-13.

As has been the case all year, UCSB struggled in the third set. A game removed from the team’s loss at UC Davis in which the Gauchos blew a 2-0 lead, Santa Barbara had a 23-20 lead over Irvine late in the set. The Anteaters stormed back, running off five straight points to take the game.

“We really need to improve on the third game,” Vargas said. “We are getting better, but mentally we need to be stronger and more aggressive.”

Santa Barbara entered the fourth set in a daze, and fell behind to Irvine early 0-5. Behind eight Anteater errors and five Schmidt kills, the Gauchos stormed back and ended the set and match, 25-20.

Next up for UCSB are two matches on the road at second-place teams Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State.

“We know for us to get to the NCAA’s, we have to win the Big West, and to do that we are going to have to beat some of these top teams,” Gregory said.