Winless in games against ranked teams and losers of nine of their last 12 matches, the UCSB men’s volleyball team needed a big win to help turn their season around.
On Wednesday night, the Gauchos got that win. UCSB swept No. 11 Cal State Northridge 3-0 (25-20, 25-22, 25-21) in Rob Gym, improving to 9-10 overall and 5-9 in MPSF play.
It was the Gauchos’ first real notable win since their Jan. 18 victory over USC, then unranked but now the No. 14 team in the nation. That’s one spot ahead of where the Gauchos currently stand, after a steady slide down the rankings in the past few weeks.
Wednesday night’s win should go a long way toward stopping that slide. UCSB held CSUN to a paltry .162 hitting percentage, a far cry from their season percentage of .348.
The Gauchos also limited the Matadors to just two aces over the three sets, again below CSUN’s season average of 1.48 aces per set.
“It helps us [to get a high-ranked win],” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “Things have been a little tough, but our guys are hanging in there and training hard. I told them we tend to make a run at the end of the year, so hopefully, this is the start of another one.”
UCSB led practically from wire-to-wire, with only a few aberrations in the first two sets. Kills from freshman middle blocker Keenan Sanders, redshirt sophomore middle blocker Connor Drake and junior outside hitter/libero Hayden Boehle pushed the Gauchos out to an early 5-1 lead in the first set, but CSUN battled back to take a 10-7 lead of their own.
That was as good as it got for the Matadors, however. The Gauchos erased the deficit in minutes and kept on going, pushing their lead to 23-17 and eventually closing out the set 25-20 on a Jacob Delson kill.
Delson was playing in his first game back after an ankle injury sidelined the star redshirt senior over the weekend against Penn State and Lees-McRae.
The outside hitter didn’t seem to miss a beat, accumulating 13 kills and eight digs while providing his team with a major lift.
“He’s probably still just 60, 70 percent, but he played and he’s tough,” McLaughlin said. “It helps.”
The second set was eerily similar in pattern. UCSB watched an early lead reverse itself by the middle of the set before storming back once again, although the Gauchos never managed to build a lead bigger than four points. In the end, however, CSUN was unable to stave off the inevitable, falling 25-22.
“We passed the ball really well,” McLaughlin said. “[CSUN] serves the heck out the ball … so we did a lot of repetition toward that, and we handled it. We passed well, and typically when you pass well you’re going to get a good shot.”
Just as in the two sets prior, UCSB jumped out to an early lead in the third set. CSUN, dutifully following the script, immediately went about trimming the lead down, but the Gauchos managed to never fall behind in the set.
Instead, a three-point run broke a 14-14 tie and put UCSB ahead 17-14. A few points later, a four-point run pushed the lead out to 23-18, and another kill from Delson sealed what Coach McLaughlin called “the biggest win of the season” for the Gauchos.
Sanders was second on the team with eight kills in what was yet another strong game for the middle blocker. Sanders has had at least eight kills in each of his last five games, an important component of UCSB’s 3-2 mark over that stretch.
“Keenan Sanders has been playing well for a lot of matches now,” McLaughlin said. “He’s an unreal freshman, and he’s just starting to tap into what he can do.”
The Gauchos have a chance to build on Wednesday’s win when they take on fifth-ranked Lewis on Saturday night. The Flyers will be wrapping up a brutal three-game West Coast trip, having taken on UCLA and USC on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.
UCSB hosts Lewis on Saturday night at 7 p.m. in Rob Gym.