With just one weekend left to play this season, the UCSB women’s volleyball team is two wins away from winning its first Big West title since 2004. The Gauchos went another week without dropping a single set, with 3-0 sweeps over Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside, finally earning sole possession of first place in the conference.
At 17-9 overall and 12-2 in the Big West, UCSB has its destiny in its own hands, but a loss in one of their final two matches could drop them behind No. 10 Hawaii (22-4, 11-3) in the standings. Fullerton drops to 11-16 overall and 4-11 in the Big West with the loss, while UCR fell to a disappointing 2-25 overall, 1-14 conference record.
“I don’t know if we knew we could do this in the beginning of the season, so to be two matches away from NCAAs is awesome,” sophomore setter Hanna Nielson said. “I’m really happy we could do this for our seniors.”
On Senior Night this past Saturday, the Gauchos took on last-place Riverside in their last home game of the year. After a lethargic start that saw the Highlanders score 11 of their first 13 points off of UCSB errors, Santa Barbara cleaned up its act and took over for the rest of the match. Leading 15-14 in the first set, the Gauchos went on an 8-0 run to pull away, led by senior opposite Katey Thompson. With set point, Thompson picked up her fifth kill of the first set to give her team a 25-16 win.
“We had a lot of errors in the first half of the first set and when you do that any team’s going to be in the match and feel good about how things are going,” Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. “They were giving us things defensively that we needed to take advantage of and we started to do that.”
Right from the start of the second set UCSB showed just how outmatched their opponents from Riverside were, as they jumped out to a 12-2 lead highlighted by three straight blocks by freshman middle blocker Allie Sullberg and sophomore opposite Jaylen Villanueva. UCSB kept the pressure on, hitting at a remarkable .583 clip in the set, and a final kill by Villanueva gave the Gauchos a 25-13 win and 2-0 lead.
“Our focus sharpened up a little [in the second set],” Lantagne Welch said. “We were able to [come up with] some ideas where we could score more effectively. We became a little more deceptive with our setting and our hitters started to get into a groove.”
The third and final set was more of the same as a second 8-0 run put UCSB up 15-5. Thompson hit the final kill in front of home fans, giving the Gauchos a 25-15 victory and a sweep. This was the last career home game for Thompson as well as for senior liberos Kara Sherrard and Leah Sully.
“It’s surreal; I don’t think it’s hit any of us yet,” Sully said. “I’m just glad that we had a good team effort tonight and we could pull out a win.”
In Friday’s match against Fullerton, the Gauchos had one of their most efficient nights offensively, hitting at a .303 clip. After winning a tough first set 25-22, UCSB came out to dominate the second set, 25-18.
Fullerton tried to extend the match, but a 16-15 lead in the third set. The Gauchos reeled off seven straight points, including three straight service aces by Sherrard, and eventually won the set 25-21 on a Thompson kill.
UCSB next faces Long Beach on Friday.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of November 25, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.
Photo by Peter Vandenbelt of The Daily Nexus.