After resuming play after Spring Break on the road last week, the UCSB men’s volleyball team returns home to host the University of Hawaii for its last home matches of the season.
After losing eight straight matches, the Gauchos are in desperate need of a pair of victories on Friday and Saturday nights if they have any hope of climbing up the standings in the MPSF with only two weeks left in the season.
“Any team we play, I think we can beat, but Hawaii, we’re playing them back to back nights, so it will give us a good chance to see what their team is about,” freshman outside hitter Kevin Donohue said. “They’ve dropped some games, and we have as well, but I think the hard work in practice will translate to some wins and I’m looking forward to it.”
Saturday’s match is senior night for the lone senior on the squad, outside hitter Blaine Nielsen. Nielsen has 65 kills on the season, ranking fourth on the team.
“[Nielsen] brings a lot of leadership to the team,” Donohue said. “He’s shown us the ropes on the court and off the court. It’s nice to have a senior.”
UCSB enters the pair of weekend matches with a 5-17 overall record and 3-15 mark in conference. Its eight-game losing streak has put the Gauchos at the bottom of the MPSF, and the team finds itself unranked for the first time all season.
“We’re trying to prove that we are a good team still,” junior outside hitter Miles Evans said. “We’re still battling for some pride and just to show that we work hard in practice and that it can pay off in games.”
Meanwhile, No. 14 Hawaii had struggles of its own in recent play, losing six straight and dropping nine of 10 matches in league play. The Warriors are 7-18 overall with a conference record of 4-16, and sit one game above UCSB in the MPSF standings.
The Warriors fell at the hands of visiting No. 8 Long Beach State twice last weekend by margins of 3-0 and 3-1 on back-to-back nights. Hawaii has not won a match since a 3-1 victory over No. 5 Stanford on March 7, and closes the season in Santa Barbara for the final two matches of the year.
“I think we’re going to play hard, and not worry about the score,” Donohue said. “Hopefully we get the win.”
Senior outside hitter Steven Hunt paces the Hawaii attack with an average of over four kills per set, second best in the NCAA. Meanwhile, leading the team in digs is senior libero Nick Castello with 2.35 per set, third in the conference.
Headlining the offensive attack for the Gauchos is Evans with 3.43 kills per set, while sophomore libero Chad Kingi ranks fourth in the conference at 2.23 digs per set.
Freshman opposite Matt Marsh has impressed in his last two matches, recording team highs in kills with 14 and 11, respectively.
“Marsh has come along as a good player,” Donohue said. “He struggled a bit in the beginning of the year, but he’s only a freshman so it’s nice to see him put some big games together.”
For a team that has lost eight straight, the Gauchos are somehow still fighting for a spot in the playoffs, but must win all four remaining matches on the season to do so. The last time UCSB won a match was on Feb. 25 in a stunning 3-2 comeback victory at No. 4 BYU.
In order to keep their hopes alive of clinching that eighth and final playoff spot, the Gauchos need to take care of business this weekend, while hoping for a pair of losses from UC San Diego and Northridge, as well as one loss from Pacific.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun out there tomorrow night,” Evans said. “That’s going to be a big part of us winning, is us just playing fun, loose and aggressive.”
UCSB is coming off a pair of matches in which it was swept both times, losing at No. 2 UC Irvine and No. 11 UC San Diego. The losses marked the fourth consecutive time the Gauchos have fallen in straight sets.
“We’re listening to the coaches and not losing faith in what they tell us,” Donohue said. “We’re doing things right, but we’re still losing some games. At Irvine we played well and we still lost.”
As a unit, the Gauchos rank last in the conference in hitting percentage with under .200, as well as kills, just over 11.5 per set. Hawaii, by comparison, hits for a .233 percentage while averaging 12.4 kills per set. The two matches this weekend are the only times UCSB and Hawaii will face each other this season.
Both Friday and Saturday’s matches are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the Thunderdome.