The start of MPSF conference play has not been kind to the No. 15 UCSB men’s volleyball team, as the Gauchos will attempt to win at Pepperdine today after losing their first four conference games.
Falling to No. 4 USC on Wednesday in straight sets, Santa Barbara concludes a three-game road trip against the Waves.
“We need to improve on everything, to be honest,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “We didn’t do any one skill particularly well [Wednesday] night, so we need to improve on every single thing. The most important thing is to be a little bit more competitive, to try harder.”
After Wednesday’s loss, the Gauchos sit at 2-6 on the season and are in search of their first MPSF victory at 0-4 in conference. Previously losing in straight sets to a pair of top-five teams in UCLA and USC, the schedule does not appear to get any easier for UCSB.
“We’re not worried about playing top teams, because we consider ourselves a top team,” junior outside hitter Miles Evans said. “We’re just worried about playing well ourselves, and making sure we do our job on our side of the net.”
No. 9 Pepperdine sits in third place in the conference at 6-3 (5-2 MPSF) after nearly defeating No. 3 UCLA Wednesday night before falling 3-2.
“Pepperdine does a lot of things well,” McLaughlin said. “They’ve always blocked very well. Last night, they served very well against UCLA. They’re ranked nine right now, but I think they’re one of the five best in the country.”
Entering Wednesday’s match, Pepperdine freshman phenom outside hitter Josh Taylor led the entire MPSF in kills with 147 on the year, while junior opposite Maurice Torres was fourth with 118.
“They’re a good serving team, but we’re a good passing team, so as long as we pass the ball we should be fine,” senior outside hitter Blaine Nielsen said. “We’ve got to bring some of that competitive energy that we have in practice out to the court in matches.”
Wednesday’s match against Southern California allowed the Gauchos to insert a number of key reserves into the game, all of who are freshmen or sophomores. Playing particularly well this season has been a pair of freshmen in opposite Chris Hartig and outside hitter Kevin Donohue.
“We’re searching for guys who want to compete hard,” McLaughlin said. “We’re finding some things we need to find out, so I think it’s real valuable playing all of the young guys and getting them time out there, and get them used to it.”
Although junior middle blocker Dylan Davis and Evans are stalwarts in the starting lineup, no one’s spot is safe, as the Gauchos continue to search for a starting unit that can give UCSB its first conference victory.
“We’re going to go with whoever gives us the best shot to win, that’s what it’s all about,” McLaughlin said. “We weren’t prepared [Wednesday] real well, and that falls on us, the coaches. We have to get our guys prepared better.”
Evans has been a main catalyst of the Gauchos’ offense, leading UCSB in kills and ranking fifth in the conference at nearly four per set. Santa Barbara will need Evans and the entire Gaucho offense to work nearly perfectly to beat the Waves.
“We’re definitely going to have to play smarter,” Evans said. “We’re going to have to minimize our errors on our side of the net. They run a fast offense and we’re going to have to block better than we have been. If we just execute our strategy, we can beat these teams.”
As a team, UCSB is ranked last in the MPSF in blocks, averaging less than two per set. The lack of blocks has become a major concern for the squad.
“The thing that helps you block tremendously is having good serving and our serving has not been real tough,” McLaughlin said. “We have to serve a little bit tougher, and if we do that, our blocking will come around.”
Friday’s match at Pepperdine is set to begin at 7 p.m. in Firestone Fieldhouse.