Following a four-game road trip, the No. 10 UCSB men’s volleyball team will return to Robertson Gym for two big games this weekend, first against No. 9 Lewis University on Friday, then against No. 5 Loyola-Chicago on Saturday.
The Gauchos went an even 2-2 during that four-game road stretch and now boast a strong 5-3 overall mark heading the weekend.
“It was a tough road trip but I thought we did well to come out with two wins. A real character building road trip,” Head Coach Rick McLaughlin said. “Our confidence is getting good again, and we are ready to get some nice wins at home.”
Their first opponent, Lewis, holds a 5-2 record but has not defeated any team that is currently ranked, and their two losses have come against No. 3 UC Irvine and No. 6 Pepperdine. Loyola-Chicago has a 5-1 overall record and, despite a loss to UCI, the Ramblers upset Pepperdine back on Jan. 18 in a five-set thriller.
Despite all teams having five wins, Santa Barbara’s road to that success has been a lot tougher considering that their last five matches have come against ranked opponents and they own the toughest schedule in the nation with their remaining opponents boasting a combined win percentage of .717.
Still, even though 5-3 is a good record, the Gauchos know they could be in a better position and have to play well in their upcoming games if they want to overcome their gruesome schedule.
“We have the top schedule in the country and its because we want to be playing tough teams and get better to be ready when the playoffs come,” McLaughlin said. “We could easily be 6-2, if not 7-1, but that’s the way it goes. Sometimes it is better to lose so we can work a bit harder.”
UCSB is 5-5 all-time against Lewis and has lost three straight meetings to the Flyers, including a 3-1 defeat in Illinois last season. If the Gauchos want to change their fortunes this time around, then they will need to find a way to break through a tough Flyer defense.
Lewis holds the 12th best opponent hitting percentage in the nation holding them to a .200 clip. The Flyers also average nearly 10 digs per set, fifth-best mark in the country, and three blocks per set, second-best mark in the country.
This means UCSB will need to have an efficient, aggressive offensive showing and also need a big game from some of its offensive leaders such as senior outside hitter, Corey Chavers.
Chavers leads the team in kills per set averaging 3.29 and has amassed 102 total kills thus far in the year. No other Gaucho has more than 50, meaning that the team has a nice balance with Chavers leading the charge.
Fellow teammate junior Keenan Sanders had a career day against Lewis last season finishing with a career-high 24 kills in that match. A repeat performance of that could put the Gauchos over the top.
Offensively, Lewis is very team-oriented, with five players averaging two kills per set and no player having more than 66 kills in total.
The Gauchos are 2-1 all-time against Loyola-Chicago, losing for the first time last season, 3-1. Offensively, UCSB will need a similar game plan considering the Ramblers hold their opponents hitting percentage to just .174, ranking sixth in the nation.
Last season when these two teams met, Chavers led the team with 18 kills, but the next closest Gaucho only had nine apiece. More even distribution will be a big key.
What makes Loyola-Chicago even tougher, however, is that its offense is even better than its defense. As a team, the Ramblers average 13.86 kills per set, .363 hitting percentage and 12.68 assists per set. Those averages are the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 ranks in the country, respectively.
Senior outside hitter Collin Mahan is one of the biggest forces in the Rambler offense. The New York native recently was honored with the MIVA Offensive Player of the Week award thanks to a 28 kill performance in his team’s last two outings, including the upset win against Pepperdine where Mahan registered 18 kills on an efficient .309 hitting. This comes as no surprise as Mahan was also picked as the Preseason MIVA Player of the Year.
Defensively, UCSB will need to rely on Senior libero Hayden Boehle who leads the team with 78 digs while Sanders leads the team with 25 blocks.
Overall, this weekend will be important for Santa Barbara to make some noise on a national level in the shadows of the bigger Big West teams. Currently, the top three spots in national rankings belong to Big West teams. If UCSB wants to be there, they will need to prove it with some big wins at home.
“It is always good to be at Rob Gym and I love playing teams ranked above us. They give us the challenge we need to get better and our guys will be ready,” McLaughlin said.
UCSB takes on Lewis at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25 at Robertson Gym. The match against Loyola-Chicago will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the same time and location.
A version of this article appeared on p. 6 of the Jan. 24, 2019 edition of the Daily Nexus.