Coming into the season as one of the youngest teams in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the UCSB men’s volleyball team knew it had to rely on its underclassmen to help them reach the postseason once again. What they didn’t see coming was for one freshman to take command and emerge to play a pivotal role to the team’s success.

At 6’8’’, freshman setter Jonah Seif has combined his unique athletic ability and exceptional work ethic to handle the pressures of operating the team’s offense this season, quickly establishing himself as one of the premier players in the league in only his first year.

“He’s been great. It’s really hard for a freshman to come in and make an immediate impact on our league and times that by 10 for a setter to do it,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “A setter has so many more responsibilities and he’s got to run the whole show and run the whole offense. Jonah is way beyond his years.”

Recruited by some of the other top-tier athletic programs in the country, such as Ohio State, UCLA and Pepperdine, it seems difficult to grasp the idea that Seif, a Thousand Oaks native, has only been playing the sport of volleyball for five years.

“My dad used to play and he always urged me to play and I eventually did first year in high school,” Seif said.

Growing nine inches in high school, Seif was quick to adjust to his rapid growth spurt and began to develop his work ethic, becoming a leader on the team by his senior year.

Although he didn’t have much experience playing volleyball, Seif’s rare combination of size, quick footwork and great hands caught the attention of McLaughlin as early as his sophomore year at Thousand Oaks High School.

“I watched him play a lot both his junior and senior year, watched him a little bit his sophomore year even that young,” McLaughlin said. “You could just see that he had something in the way he wanted to be good and what he did … He always had good hands and he’s a pretty pure setter. That’s what you catch right away when you watch him.”

Already being familiar with UCSB from when he played in a basketball tournament earlier in his life, Seif’s familiarity with the campus as well as his love for the beach and its welcoming atmosphere convinced him UCSB was the right place. Yet Seif didn’t realize his own talents or potential until the latter part of his high school career.

“I didn’t really think I had a shot to play in college until probably just before senior year,” Seif said. “That’s when I realized that I could play in college.”

Nevertheless, Seif has assumed the role of the team’s starting setter, a position that comes with the responsibility of running the offense and getting the ball to the right hitter.

With his amount of playing time, Seif has embraced the role of the team’s setter and has made his presence known to the entire conference. Averaging 10.70 assists per set, Seif ranks third in the MPSF in assists per set, and against Pacific, he recorded the first triple-double by a Gaucho this season and had a career-high 55 assists against No. 1 BYU.

“When you look around the league there’s not a lot of freshmen who are starting their freshman year,” Seif said. “I feel extremely fortunate to be at this level right now and to be where I am.”

The immediate impact and playing time Seif is having comes as a surprise to Seif himself, as he didn’t even envision playing significant minutes this year.

“Coming into freshman year I didn’t think I would be getting anywhere close to this [amount of playing time],” Seif said. “I was hoping to be getting some playing time; where I am now is nowhere where I thought I would be a year ago.”

Now midway through the season, Seif still finds difficulty in adjusting to the college game, especially its speed and the physical pounding the sport has taken on his body. Seif has shown tremendous maturity and relishes the role he has been given — the most difficult one on the team.

“The hardest thing about being a setter I would say is that a lot of pressure falls on you to make the right play and you touch the ball every time,” Seif said. “There’s a lot of pressure in getting the ball to the right hitter in the right location, but I think that’s what I would say I love most about the position.”

Besides developing chemistry on the court with his teammates, Seif also focuses on it off the court as he is majoring in chemistry and aspires to excel in the classroom just as much as he does when playing volleyball.

With the Gauchos still in contention for a playoff spot this year, Seif’s playing abilities will be crucial down the stretch, but his impact in later years will certainly not be limited to just his athleticism as he desires to become a team captain and win a championship at UCSB.

“He’s got unbelievable potential, he has not tapped two percent of that potential,” McLaughlin said. “This is a guy that could — if he keeps working hard — end up setting for our Olympic team at some point. We’re just fired up to have him here.”

A version of this article appeared on page 9  of February 13th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.