Absent any postseason hope, the UCSB women’s volleyball team will aim to finish their conference schedule with a positive record Wednesday night in a home match against the UC Irvine Anteaters (11-18, 6-9 Big West).
The Gauchos (17-11, 8-7 Big West) challenged Big West Conference Champions Hawaii early in Saturday’s match, but the Rainbow Wahine made quick work of the Gauchos to finish out the match 3-1, taking away UCSB’s final path to the NCAA playoffs.
UC Irvine, seventh in the Big West, comes off a 3-0 away loss to UC Davis, a fifth straight loss including three consecutive sweeps.
UCSB accounted for the first of those three back on Nov. 5 in Irvine when the Gauchos were in the midst of their first substantial winning streak during the conference schedule.
Redshirt senior outside hitter Victoria Dennis has been the most potent offensive force for the Anteaters, averaging 3.50 kills per set in Big West play, seventh in the conference.
She sports a solid .241 kill percentage and is one of 11 players to cross the 200-point threshold throughout the conference schedule, joined by her teammate, sophomore outside hitter Harlee Kekauoha.
Another senior, setter Shelley Anderson, is responsible for creating opportunities for Dennis and her fellow outside and opposite hitters, averaging just under 10 assists per set during the Big West season, right behind Gaucho redshirt freshman setter Hannah Juley’s 10.22 which rank fifth in the conference.
For the Anteaters, Kekauoha, who ranks second on her team in kills per set, also gives them an edge in the service game as she’s led All-Big West competition with .58 services aces per set. Junior libero Luna Tsujimoto is one of seven Big West players to average at least four digs per set in conference play; her mark of 4.28 per set is about a half dig shy of Gaucho sophomore libero Emilia Petrachi’s 4.71 league-leading number.
Though this will surely be UCSB’s final match of the year, there are still many bright spots in what was a vastly improved season for the Gauchos.
Lindsey Ruddins will wrap up a tremendously successful conference schedule in which she averaged 3.83 kills per set (fifth in the Big West), .56 service aces per set (second), 2.06 digs per set (28th) and 4.5 points per set (third). If she can top 20 kills in the contest, it would be her third time in four matches and fifth this season. After missing out on the 2015 season, Ruddins has proved to be every bit as good as billed in 2016.
After transferring from Wisconsin, Hannah Juley, too, was an absolute standout for the Gauchos in 2016. Finishing with the fifth-most assists per set amongst her Big West competition, Juley hit her stride when the conference schedule started. Since then she’s accumulated five double-doubles, eight matches with at least 40 assists and two with at least 50. A key concern this season for the Gauchos was locking down the setter position, and Juley has left no question about the direction for the future.
UCSB can also rest easy knowing it has possibly the Big West’s best libero in Petrachi. The sophomore from Modena, Italy leads the conference in digs per set and comes into the match with four straight 20-dig efforts after only five up to that point in the year. On the verge of completing her second season, Petrachi’s experience will be vital for the Gauchos going forward.
Senior middle blockers Elizabeth Sheffield and Phoebe Grunt will compete in their final match for UCSB Wednesday night, hoping to cap their careers with a victory. Grunt averaged career bests in kills per set with 1.95, and in hitting percentage with .355 in 2016, capping a stellar season despite playing in the fewest matches in her tenure with the Gauchos.
In her second year with the team, Sheffield improved her hitting percentage from .244 to .312, and her kills per set from 1.73 to 1.75. She’s gotten to at least 10 points in nine of her last 12 matches and will look to continue that trend in the last match of her collegiate career.
With one match left in what has been a rollercoaster year, the Gauchos still have much to glean from the 2016 season.
UCSB and UC Irvine face off in the final match of the season for both teams at 5 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 23, at the Thunderdome.