File photo (Daily Nexus)

File photo (Daily Nexus)

Any UCSB men’s volleyball match is going to be a must-see event in 2015. As the season begins this weekend, the squad has high expectations and is nationally regarded as one of the best teams in the country with a shot at a national championship.

Santa Barbara is listed as No. 2 in the MPSF and No. 4 nationally in preseason rankings. In recent years, the Gauchos have been known as hardworking underdogs expected to surprise a higher-ranked team at some point in the season. This time around, however, the Gauchos begin the year with other teams fighting to knock them down in the rankings instead.

“There’s a different feeling this year. We are supposed to win the games we play,” senior outside hitter Weston Nielson said. “We’re confident in our team. This team could do amazing things.”

The Gauchos return a lot of players, most notably junior setter Jonah Seif, Nielson and a tandem of strong middle blockers: redshirt senior Jake Staahl and redshirt junior Ryan Hardy. UCSB also looks forward to having redshirt sophomore Jacob Delson back in the lineup. The outside hitter missed all of last season with an injury and he is expected to make an impact on the court.

The Gauchos start their season today against Saint Francis. This non-conference match comes the day before the UCSB Asics Invitational where the Gauchos will play three matches over two days against non-conference teams.

Santa Barbara is hoping to start its season strong and boost its end of season NCAA ranking with matches against non-conference teams, something the Gauchos have not done in past seasons.

“We want to go undefeated in non-conference matches,” Seif said. “We won’t be overlooked this year and we can’t overlook anyone.”

Saint Francis finished last season unranked nationally. The Red Flash had an 11-15 record and finished fifth in the EIVA. The team is led by opposite Mike Marshman, a 6’7” junior. He was an EIVA second team selection last season. Coming in to 2015, Saint Francis is ranked No. 5 in the EIVA.

On Friday, the Gauchos will play Limestone at 10 a.m. and Princeton at 7 p.m., followed by a match against IPFW on Saturday at 6:30 p.m.

Limestone was 16-12 in 2014 and 8-6 in Conference Carolinas. Princeton finished third in EIVA last season and begins 2015 ranked in the same position. IPFW came fourth in MIVA standings last season with a 21-7 record overall. All of the teams will be playing their first matches of the season this weekend.

“We feel old. We are mature,” Nielson said. “Obviously we want to end the season with a win, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We are focused on league and our first goal is making it to the MPSF tournament.”

The Gauchos have an opportunity to make an impact in the NCAA tournament, but they must focus on finishing high in league first. They are excited to start the season and they hope to begin it with some victories.

The Gauchos play Saint Francis at 4 p.m. today. All matches will be at Rob Gym.

A version of this article appeared on page 9 of January 8, 2014’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.