Coming off a second place finish at the Gaucho Collegiate Invitational, the # 5 UCSB men’s volleyball team kicks off conference play against UCSD on Friday and #7 UC Irvine on Saturday.

“If you do well in our conference, you got a shot to win the national championship,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “We look forward to this weekend’s matches.”

The last five matches that UCSB faced San Diego have all been decided in the fifth game, with the Gauchos winning the last two meetings. The two MPSF teams have yet to play this year.

“We can’t take this match lightly,” senior hitter Cullen Irons said. “Any given night in our league any team can beat anyone. They got some guys that can do some damage. They’re able to pull upsets. We need to make sure our serving game is on.”

Led by All-Conference senior setter Phil Bannan, UCSD (1-0) will be looking to continue momentum after an upset victory over UC Irvine on Wednesday night. The Tritons took seventh place at the Gaucho Collegiate Invitational.

“They’re always good,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “It’s a tough place to play on the road. The best way to stop a good offense is to serve tough and get them out of rhythm.”

The Gauchos then travel to Irvine to take on the Anteaters on Saturday Jan 15. UCI is one of the top teams in the MPSF conference and won the NCAA National Championship in 2007 and 2009. UCSB and UCI did not play each other this pre-season, but the Gauchos beat Irvine both times the two schools played last year.

“They’re well coached and got a ton of talent,” Coach McLaughlin said. “We got to do our job. We have to win the serve and pass battles.”

Santa Barbara native Carson Clark leads the Anteater attack. The junior opposite hitter will help UCI defend their home court against the Gauchos on Saturday at 8pm.

“We’ve worked on our passing and blocking a lot,” Coach McLaughlin said. “Teams that block the best are usually around at the end of the year.”

UCSB ended the preseason with a 9-3 record and its best result in the Gaucho Collegiate Invitational since 2001. Six returning starters from last year’s squad seek a MPSF title and a shot at the 2011 national championship.