If you thought the only underdogs winning in college were in basketball, think again. The UCSB men’s volleyball team is entering the playoffs on a streak very reminiscent of when it went on its Cinderella run two years ago all the way to the NCAA title match.
After starting the season 5-11 and ranking as low as last place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the Gauchos finished the regular season winning 10 of their last 14 games and are in perfect position to make some noise, just like they did two seasons ago.
In a rollercoaster season with ups and downs throughout, the one constant for UCSB has been the leadership of senior middle blocker and team captain Dylan Davis. The lone remaining starter of the team that finished as the national runner-up two seasons ago, Davis has led the team not just with his excellent play, but also with his experience that has propelled UCSB into becoming a serious contender.
“With some of the young guys we have on the team, it’s not about me being a hyper-aggressive captain or anything like that,” Davis said. “The best way I can be captain and leader on this team is by playing my best every night and making sure the other guys can have an even mind when we’re playing teams.”
Davis let his playing do much of the talking this year, finishing the season with 210 kills and ranking first on the team in hitting percentage (.438) and blocks (151). His 437 total blocks throughout his career ranks third all-time in program history. However, what you don’t see is Davis’ significance to the young team inside the locker room.
“He’s been a great leader; he’s our captain and he’s gotten these guys to push every day in practice and really set their goals, and really work towards them,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “That wasn’t an easy thing to do when we were 3-9 in league and he kept going and kept to the task, and now we’re [11-13] in league and we’re in the playoffs.”
As a sophomore, Davis was thrust onto volleyball’s biggest stage with six seniors starting alongside him and despite losing in the title game against Ohio State, that experience has been invaluable in shaping Davis’ role as team captain this year.
“Being one of the only guys left on the team that was able to experience [the NCAA Final Four], I realize that I have to bring a kind of leadership to this team and just be the most complete player I possibly can,” Davis said. “And just allow the other players to build off of it [and] gain their own confidence … That’s pretty much been my own goal.”
Sneaking into the MPSF playoffs as a No. 7 seed in 2011, the Gauchos went on an improbable run, defeating the No. 2, No. 6 and top overall seed USC en route to capturing the conference title and ultimately losing the national title game in five sets. Yet, perhaps no game in that incredible run was more significant to Davis than the national semifinal rematch versus USC.
On the game’s biggest stage, Davis picked the right occasion for his coming-out party. In the match, Davis recorded 15 kills and a NCAA tournament record .882 hitting percentage, leading his team to the championship game and marking the beginning of Davis’ transition to being the leader he is now for the Gauchos.
“It gave me confidence in that I could compete with anybody on the other side,” Davis said. “I knew that the way I played was going to be the way I dictated my season and that game — having one of the best games of my career, really taught me I can hang with whomever.”
Despite losing back in 2011, Davis has used the loss to fuel him to get his current team to where he wants them to be as they prepare to make their first postseason appearance after missing out last year.
“I think it gives him the desire to get back there and win it,” McLaughlin said. “We had a tough loss back there two years ago and I think that just makes Dylan even hungrier to get this team on the same page so we can get back there and win it.”
Entering the season with a roster consisting of only three seniors, Davis had the responsibility of leading a very young team through the toughest conference in collegiate volleyball. Yet, the team has responded to Davis’ style of leadership and he has embraced his role of team captain and all the pressures that come along with it.
“There are guys that look up to you. You have to always be ready to play. You can’t have an off day. You’re going to be the guy that everyone looks up to in the end,” Davis said. “It’s just one of those situations where you have to be confident and be sure of yourself that you’re going to handle that pressure of people expecting so much of you.”
Now a senior and playing in his final opportunity to win a national championship, Davis understands the potential this team has developed over the course of the season and is confident his team can make a run like they did when he was just a sophomore.
“Everyone is starting to click and it couldn’t have come at a better time right now,” Davis said. “I have high hopes for the end of the season and we just got to keep it going … I don’t want it to stop; I don’t want the end to come soon.”
Although UCSB will have to play on the road in the first round of the playoffs against UC Irvine on Saturday, the Gauchos still have a little magic on their side in Davis, and we all know what happened last time he entered the playoffs as an underdog.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of April 17th’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Daniel Wade of the Daily Nexus.