Women's Volleyball Season Preview: Gauchos Have Their Eye on the NCAA Tourney

Women's Volleyball Season Preview: Gauchos Have Their Eye on the NCAA Tourney

Gone are All-Americans Stacey Schmidt and Chelsey Lowe. Gone is All-Big West first teamer Lily Lopez and Big West Freshman of the Year Hanna Nielson.

Replacing them is a roster made up of mostly fresh faces, including just three returning starters and seven freshmen.

Is the 2012 UCSB Women's Volleyball team due for a disappointment?

Not so fast.
Despite the rampant roster turnover, optimism abounds this team for a bevy of reasons.
UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory, who is entering her 38th season at the helm, sees no reason why her squad should not compete for a conference title and an NCAA bid.

"This year's season will have a different look because we lost three very important pieces to this team," stated Gregory, "were going to have a much younger lineup. But I still feel we are very capable of competing in and being one of the best teams in the Big West and qualifying for a bid into the NCAA tourney."

Balance and chemistry will be the two motifs for this 2012 team. Without a go-to player in the mold of Stacey Schmidt in 2011 or Rebecca Saraceno in 2009, the Gauchos will be forced to spread the ball around the floor and get contributions from each player on the roster.
Leah Sully will be a popular setting option, but expect every hitter and middle on the floor to get involved often. The Gauchos are certainly equipped for this approach, as the mix of returners like Sully and Kara Sherrard along with a strong incoming class of freshman should provide a deep stable of options for Gregory.

In addition to the lack of a clear-cut top option, just three starters return from last year's 19-12 squad that rattled off a 7-1 hot streak to end the season. With so many new faces, it begs the question of whether or not this team can gel and develop chemistry in time for the new season.

Gregory assuaged any fears in that department by asking her squad to go above and beyond. Most of the girls on the team have been in Santa Barbara over the summer training together and going to summer school. This extra time has allowed the team to get to know new faces, new schemes, and the new team approach of balance earlier than they usually would have.
"The competitive spirit is there, the fundamentals are there," Gregory confidently stated, "and we're getting to a place where we are gelling as a team."

This jump start should lend itself to better consistency from the Gauchos, who hovered around the .500 mark for most of last season before catapulting up the standings on the back of the aforementioned 7-1 run.

The season goals still remain high for the Gauchos. UCSB hopes to find itself in the NCAA tournament come the end of the year, and at the very least hope to be a contender for the Big West title.
Gregory claims that goal will be reached by "getting in the right physical and mental state to play. That will be the hardest part for these freshmen, which is why we're taking these upcoming tournaments seriously."

Team captain Erica Lau is feeling strongly about the team as well: "I'm really excited for the season. We have a lot of depth and we're giving Kathy a lot of options to pull from off the bench. We have great passing and defense, which has been a staple of UCSB volleyball."

Lau's role as team captain is especially important considering the youthful nature of the roster. "My job as leader is to keep everyone up. Everyone is going have their off days, their bad plays- so I just want to keep everyone on the team ready and in high spirits.

In the end, for the Gauchos to be successful they'll have to receive continued excellent play from their returning starters and have a number of freshmen meet expectations of them. If history is any guide, Kathy Gregory will get the best out of this 2012 squad.

Outside Hitters

The outside hitter position is the one with the most continuity for the Gauchos, as juniors Leah Sully and Kara Sherrard both return.

Leah Sully will need to be an "all-around player for this team," according to Gregory. Sully certainly has the resume to be one of the best-rounded players on the team and in the conference. Last season, coming off of a knee injury, Sully led the team in kills (370), kills per game (3.01- the only Gaucho over 3.0), total attacks (1260), service aces (38), and points (432.5). She also placed second on the team in digs (467) and total serves received (755).

Kara Sherrard should continue to be a solid option for the Gauchos. Kara, in her third year of starting, went from being a young pup to one of the longest tenured members of the team in a two-month span. Sherrard's passing was a bright spot for the Gauchos last year, as she recorded the fewest receiving errors of the primary serve receivers last year despite being served to the most times (32, 769).

The right side attacking option is a bit open. Freshman Jaylen Villanueva figures to see time at the position while junior middle blocker Katey Thompson fully recovers from a knee injury. 

Villanueva's athleticism and all-around ability is evidenced by her being listed as both a setter and an opposite. Thompson is one of the more senior members of the team and is also one of their tallest at 6-1. Expect both players to get plenty of time throughout the season.

Middle Blockers

Junior middle blocker Jenna Wilson is the only other returning starter for the Gauchos. Despite not being widely lauded, Wilson had an excellent season in 2011-leading the team with 0.96 blocks per game. In 2012, Gregory will ask her to assume more of an offensive role. Wilson has shown she has the offensive chops, putting down 103 kills in 103 games a year ago.

Freshman Britton Taylor will also see time at the position. Though a freshman, she instantly becomes the Gauchos' tallest player at 6-3. Gregory praised her volleyball acumen, saying "she has such a feel for the game offensively. She's very steady, consistent, and doesn't make many mistakes so we feel very comfortable with her."

Libero/Defensive Specialist

Freshman Taylor Formico will slide into the libero role for UCSB. Formico is a very agile and decorated athlete, having won MVP of the WCAL league during her senior year at St. Francis High School. "She's exceptionally quick," according to Gregory, "but she needs a little experience. These preseason events will be good for her."

Team captain, and the sole senior on the squad, Erica Lau figures to be next in line for playing time. Lau will also continue her role as a serving specialist, and will spell the service receivers throughout the season.


Taking over at setter is Ali Santi, a sophomore transfer from Georgia Tech. Though the backup last season, Santi actually led the Yellow Jackets with 10.89 assists per game. "She's a very good leader and a good competitor," according to Gregory. Santi follows in the footsteps of Hanna Nielson and UCSB legend Dana Vargas, so she has her work cut out for her. However, once she becomes comfortable with her team, there should be no reason to think she cannot put up impressive numbers.