With only two games left in the regular season, the No. 7 UCSB men’s volleyball team plans to end the season strong and gain momentum for the playoffs when it plays USC tonight at the Thunderdome.
Already with a spot in the playoffs clinched, the Gauchos still have the opportunity of improving to as high as the fifth seed if they win their final two games.
“We’re in the playoffs, that’s the good news, but we have two very winnable matches,” junior middle blocker Evan Licht said. “We just want to build momentum, compete hard and get to a level that we can go on a run in the playoffs, because we’ve learned that anything can happen if we just get in and play hard.”
UCSB enters tonight’s game with a 14-14 record overall and is two games below .500 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation at 10-12, currently sitting in eighth place. Although the team has lost consecutive games for the first time since February after Friday’s five-set loss to BYU, the Gauchos have still won seven of their last nine matches, including sweeping five of those opponents in three sets.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re not killing ourselves as much, we’re making teams play,” Licht said. “[Head Coach Rick McLaughlin] is giving us great scouting reports. When we get the ball we serve hard, we pass well, good things happened and it’s showed over the past few weeks.”
Meanwhile, USC comes into the Thunderdome at 6-16 overall and in MPSF play, and are eliminated from postseason contention. In the last meeting between these two teams in Los Angeles, the Gauchos upset the Trojans 3-1, which marked the turning point in the season for the Gauchos as the team went on to win eight of the following nine games.
“[USC is] going to be a lot better this time. They’re going to be hungry,” McLaughlin said. “Last time we were the ones who surprised them. They’re going to try to surprise us so we just got to be ready and play like the way we did [against BYU], and if we do that we’ll have a good chance.”
Sophomore outside hitter Cristian Rivera will be the main threat likely to cause problems for Santa Barbara. In his last game against Cal State Northridge, Rivera had a team-high 18 kills and hit for an impressive .500 clip. This season, Rivera is third on the team with 147 kills so far.
UCSB will still be without some of its key players tonight including senior outside hitter Miles Evans, whose presence was missed in Friday’s game versus BYU. Still, the Gauchos understand the importance of finishing the season strong as they prepare to play in the MPSF playoffs in two weeks.
“We have to finish strong heading into the playoffs, we don’t want to go not playing our best,” McLaughlin said. “If we can play like we did [against BYU] I think we got a good shot at these next two opponents … That’s easier said than done.”
Tonight’s match is scheduled for a 7 p.m. start in the Thunderdome.
Photo by Megali Gauthier of the Daily Nexus.
A version of this article appeared on page 8 of April 10th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.