The UCSB men’s volleyball team’s quest to defend its title as Mountain Pacific Sports Federation champions begins this weekend, as the Gauchos open up MPSF play with two consecutive home matches.

Starting the season with a 2-2 record in pre-conference play after a 3-0 victory over Cal Baptist, the No. 13 Gauchos play host in two big matchups this weekend against MPSF foes Pacific and Stanford.

“Stanford is always one of the top five teams in the country, and Pacific, this is probably one of the best teams they’ve had in years,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “We’re looking at trying to upset two teams that are above us right now. We’ll be ready to compete hard.”

As six of the seven regular starters from last year’s national runner-up team graduated, the Gauchos possess a relatively young and inexperienced team that will look to build confidence with the start of league play.

“We are teaching a ton in the gym. Last year, we had a bunch of seniors who kind of knew what they were doing,” McLaughlin said. “I think [winning] would help. Anytime you can get a victory after working hard like these guys have been and learning a lot, if you get a win to reinforce that, it’s huge.”

Leading the team thus far in the season have been junior middle blocker Dylan Davis, the sole returning starter from last year’s team, and junior outside hitter Miles Evans, a transfer from Santa Barbara City College who is the team’s leader in kills with nearly 14 per game.

“[Dylan] kind of grounds our team,” Evans said. “We totally respect him, he has all the experience and he kind of maintains a higher level for our team because he is so good of a player. It rubs off on everybody else.”

UCSB faces No. 15 Pacific on Friday, a team it has defeated in 12 of the last 13 opportunities. The Tigers currently sit at 2-2 on the season and are 0-1 in MPSF play after falling to Stanford to open conference. Pacific will look to snap a two-game losing streak against the Gauchos.

No. 4 Stanford meanwhile comes into Saturday’s contest sporting a 3-0 record (1-0 MPSF) after defeating Pacific 3-0 to open their season. The Cardinal must travel to face UCLA Friday night before coming to Santa Barbara in what are the first two games of a 10-game road trip spanning over a month. For most of the Gauchos, it will be their first time receiving major playing time in MPSF conference games.

“I know our team is young, but I don’t think that matters too much,” Evans said. “Our team chemistry is pretty strong, and I think we’re going to do pretty well against these two teams this weekend. There is no guaranteed winner, it’s just going to be a battle, and we’re going to do our best.”

Thanks in part to the preseason schedule and practice, many Gauchos have emerged as leaders of the team. McLaughlin was quick to note a trio of players who have been leaders on and off the court in senior outside hitter Blaine Nielsen, junior setter Oliver Deutschman, and sophomore libero Chad Kingi.

“Chad and Oliver, again, have made huge steps in the past couple of weeks with how they’re carrying themselves on the court and taking responsibilities,” Davis said. “It’s such a young team that everyone needs more experience on the court, and the more we get out there, I definitely think it’s just going to help us in the long run.”

Friday’s match begins at 7 p.m., while Saturday’s contest is set to begin at 5 p.m. Both games will be held in Rob Gym.