What makes sports so fun to follow? As fans, we try to write the scripts of our favorite sports even before any games are played. We always think we know what’s coming — which team will end up in first place and which one is doomed to a season of insignificance — yet we keep watching. We do this because we know that on any given day, an underdog can win a game that they weren’t supposed to. The script is constantly being flipped, and we are reminded that every statistic we see on paper is thrown out the window the second the two teams step onto the playing field. We don’t want to miss out on the teams making those amazing runs, those improbable upsets that no one could have seen coming. This season, the UCSB women’s volleyball team just happens to be one of those teams.
After the Big West Preseason Coaches Poll predicted the Gauchos to finish in sixth place out of nine in the conference, expectations weren’t exactly sky high. New coaches, new players and a conference dominated by Hawaii, the No. 11 ranked team in the nation — not the ideal formula for a season with championship aspirations. For whatever reason, though, this team of scrappy Gauchos has done the improbable this season. They are currently second in the Big West at 10-2, trailing only the 12-2 Matadors of Cal State Northridge. With just four matches left and a tiebreaker over Northridge, UCSB has its destiny in its own hands; win out, and they’re the champs. But how did this happen?
“One of the reasons I took the program is because I knew we could have success, challenge for Big West championships and make the NCAA’s,” Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. “However, back in February when I took over, I did not think that we would be challenging [this season], and that’s just a testament and credit to the team.”
Twelve games into the year, the Gauchos didn’t look like the team that they knew they could be. They had played well at times, but with a 5-7 preseason record, that sixth place prediction wasn’t looking too far off. Despite the sub-.500 record heading into their first conference match, though, the team knew it was capable of much more.
“We had a really tough preseason, and there were some games that we should have won,” freshman outside hitter Ali Spindt said. “But I think the preseason showed us what we could do. Taking games off top-teams gave us a lot of confidence, we just kept working super hard in practice and everything sort of came together.”
In their Big West opener at home against Long Beach State, the Gauchos were seemingly at a disadvantage because of an injury to senior outside hitter and co-captain Leah Sully’s hitting arm the week before. As a result, UCSB stumbled to a disappointing 3-2 loss, but the injury would prove to be a blessing in disguise.
“That was the first match we moved Leah to libero and so we had a brand-new lineup and only a day or two to practice with it,” Lantagne Welch said. “We really got into a rhythm after that and were able to really produce. People were really comfortable in their roles and really started to excel from that point on.”
With Sully now playing libero, other positions began to open up for the younger players on the team. Sophomore outside hitter Ali Barbeau’s production skyrocketed thanks to the absence of Sully on the outside, and Spindt established herself as a nightly threat for a double-double. The Gauchos also received consistent contributions from freshmen middle blockers Phoebe Grunt and Allie Sullberg, who have remarkably risen to first and fourth, respectively, in blocks per set in the Big West.
“It’s hard for any freshman to come into a starting role, there’s a lot of adjustments to be made,” Sully said. “But they did a really great job at taking on their roles and when they play well other people play well, so that helps the team a lot.”
With the role players in place, Sully continuing to anchor the middle at libero, and senior opposite Katey Thompson performing at a high level as the team’s top hitter, the Gauchos were ready to make a run, and they did just that.
Following the loss to Long Beach State, UCSB took down UC Irvine in straight sets and a hot Cal Poly team, 3-1. Next up was the most difficult road test of the season: Hawaii. The Rainbow Wahine had risen to No. 3 in the nation at the time and had been undefeated in the Big West since they entered it last season, but the girls from Santa Barbara came in ready for a fight. After five grueling sets, the Gauchos came away with one of their biggest and most exciting wins in the team’s recent history, reminding everyone, including themselves, that anything was possible.
“I think the team really believed that we could play with anybody,” Lantagne Welch said. “The combination of the older players believing in the new players, and everyone just being ready to go after it was a big point in that victory.”
From then, things became almost too easy. UCSB defeated the Big West’s top team for the second straight week in Cal State Northridge, 3-0. The next day, it showed its resilience in a comeback victory over a tough UC Davis squad. In the Gauchos’ next three road matches, they failed to drop even one set, sweeping UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly as they prepared for the season’s final stretch of matches.
“One of the best things is we had such balance,” Lantagne Welch said. “One match it would be a Katey Thompson, another match it would be an Ali Spindt, then it was Ali Barbeau and Leah Sully’s passing and defense. There isn’t one particular player, and I think that’s the reflection of our success because there have been so many contributions.”
UCSB’s historic winning-streak of eight straight matches, its longest since 2005, came to a close in a tough loss to Hawaii a couple of weeks ago, but the Gauchos have since bounced back with wins over Davis and first-place Northridge. The Gauchos haven’t made it to the NCAA tournament since 2009, and they haven’t won the conference since 2004, but for whatever reason, this is the year that it might happen.
With all the unexpected ups and downs a season has to offer, it is difficult to predict how any team’s year will go. Sometimes, like in the case of the 2013 UCSB women’s volleyball team, everything just comes together the right way at the right time. Now, just four more wins is all it will take to complete what has been a storybook season. Four more wins, and these underdog Gauchos are Big West champs.
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of November 20, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Eric Swenson of The Daily Nexus.