Returning home after a three-game road trip, the No. 14 UCSB men’s volleyball team will host the hottest team in the nation in No. 1 UCLA today.
Capturing their first conference victory of the season last week at No. 10 Pepperdine, the Gauchos will try to build a winning streak after previously losing four straight.
“If we won [tonight], as a team, we’d have a lot more confidence and it would be probably one of our biggest wins of the year,” junior outside hitter Miles Evans said. “We’re looking forward to just playing [tonight] to see how we stand against one of the top teams in the nation.”
Entering last week’s match against Pepperdine, UCSB (3-6 overall, 1-4 MPSF) was one of only two teams in the entire MPSF without a conference victory. With their first MPSF victory, the Gauchos seem determined to give the Bruins all they can handle.
“They’re the number one team in the nation right now,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “It would be a huge step for us. We’re definitely ready to play them harder and closer than we did a few weeks ago when we went down there. We’re going to have to be at our best to beat them, no doubt about it.”
Falling earlier in the season at UCLA in straight sets, the Gauchos will try to improve their level of competitiveness against the Bruins. The Bruins, however, are winners of nine straight contests and have the top record in both the nation and the conference at 11-1 (6-0 conference), the lone unbeaten team in the MPSF.
“We have to make the other team earn every point, we can’t give them free points,” McLaughlin said. “At Pepperdine, we did that better than we’ve done it the whole year. We have to do it even better against UCLA. They’re the best team in the country, and you can’t let the best team earn free points if you want to beat them.”
UCLA defeated rival USC in straight sets last Friday, but only after struggling to put away Pepperdine with a 3-2 victory two days before. The Bruins are currently in the midst of a six-game road trip, the match against Santa Barbara being the third.
“We feel like we can beat UCLA,” Evans said. “The match against Pepperdine showed that we can play good as a team, and each player can play at their highest performance.”
Providing a spark for the Gauchos against Pepperdine were a pair of outside hitters in junior Miles Evans and freshman Kevin Donohue. While Evans has led UCSB in kills in seven of nine matches thus far in the season, Donohue is a new weapon for the Gauchos, registering a team-high 17 kills against the Waves.
“UCLA jumped up in the rankings and now they’ve got a target on their back,” Donohue said. “Coming off our first win of the season against Pepperdine, our guys are really pumped up to play UCLA. We’re looking forward to the match [tonight], especially being at home, so hopefully we can get a good crowd out there.”
Hoping to capitalize on their opportunities in a similar fashion as they did against Pepperdine, the Gauchos will once again need to limit their errors and use a stout blocking defense at the net to slow down UCLA. The Bruins, meanwhile, lead the conference in blocks per game, hitting percentage, and opponent’s hitting percentage on the season.
“As a team we need to make sure that we keep the pressure on UCLA,” Donohue said. “One thing that we did against Pepperdine was we blocked really well, we had 15.5 team blocks. That was a major reason why we stepped up and won that game. “
Junior middle blocker Dylan Davis led the Gauchos with seven kills to go along with seven blocks in Friday’s victory, and will need to be just as dominant if the Gauchos are going to pull off the upset over UCLA.
The Bruins feature the top two hitters in terms of hitting percentage in the conference in senior quick hitters Thomas Amberg and Weston Dunlap. Dunlap and Amberg lead a veteran Bruins squad featuring seven seniors, compared to the lone senior outside hitter Blaine Nielsen for the Gauchos.
Today’s match against UCLA is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in Rob Gym.