By MARK PATTON, NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
Nicole Lantagne Welch woke up on the right side of the bed when she greeted her first morning in Santa Barbara last spring.
"I got up and had the mountains over here on one side, and the beach over there, and it felt like home," she said. "It felt right."
But she found no mountain-sized Gauchos after awakening on Friday to her first practice as UCSB's new women's volleyball coach. She's inheriting an undersized team that went just 16-17 last year, and she'll be facing a tall order in just three weeks when NCAA title-contender Stanford arrives for the Aug. 30 opener.
And yet, it still felt right.
"It's special because it's a new start," said Welch, who spent the last dozen years as Miami's head coach. "It's a fresh start.
"There's a renewed excitement about UCSB volleyball, and I've felt that with the team, and with the people that I've just randomly met in the community."
She's stepping into the enormous coaching shoes of Volleyball Hall of Famer Kathy Gregory, whose strong voice and 882 victories the past 38 years made her the Thunderdame of the Thunderdome.
But senior opposite hitter Katey Thompson could feel a familiar electricity crackling in the air of SBCC's Sports Pavilion, where the Gauchos had been displaced on Friday by the Michael Jordan Camp.
"I'd say she's demanding, and smart, but also fun," she said of Welch. "She makes the energy great in here, which makes it so much easier to play.
"It's her attitude. When you're walking into the gym, it's, 'All right, we're going to get to work, but volleyball is fun, and you have a passion for it ñ that's why you play.' She and Kathy love it the same way: Loud, and with energy."
Thompson could feel her own strong personality emerge during the two tournaments and two Cal Poly matches the Gauchos played while training under Welch last spring.
"I'm pretty outgoing, and coach definitely encourages that," she said. "She says she's never told a player to be quiet."
Gregory was constantly demanding her team to talk on the court, but her huge presence sometimes had the opposite effect.
"Kathy was always such a voice, like for the whole team," said senior outside hitter Leah Sully, a first-team all-leaguer last year. "She was constantly yelling, so it would kind of make everyone else quiet."
The Sports Pavilion turned into a boom box on Friday as Welch ran 11 veterans and seven newcomers through their first drills.
"They're developing their own personality," Welch said. "Probably one of the challenges was that Kathy did provide so much talking and energy that they were kind of used to being quiet in a lot of settings.
"But we want them to interact a little more in our huddles. We want to hear them."
She even assigned a project to the players when they reported for a team meeting on Thursday: The drawing of a staircase, with a letter on each step that would spell out Gauchos. The players have to think up words, starting with each letter, that best describe their mission, as well as inspirational quotes to be placed at the base of the stairs.
"It's how we're approaching things, one step at a time," Welch said. "We'll be looking for progress each week and just go from there."
Sully said they'll make a poster out of it and place it inside their locker room.
"It's something we'll look at every day to think about what we're working towards," she said.
The Gauchos may need a ladder to match up with Stanford, which is led by high-leaping All-American Carly Wopat from Dos Pueblos High.
"We're small and we're not high at the net," Welch said. "Our strengths are definitely in the ball-handling and defensive area. We're working on that balance to help us attack more, because we'll be smaller than a lot of the teams we'll face."
Sully, a 5-foot-11 senior, carried such a big load last year that it's surprising she wasn't squashed down to 5-5. She set a UCSB record in 2012 with 1,798 swings while leading the Big West with 558 kills.
"We want more of a middle attack and more right-side attack," Welch said. "It's something that Leah and our outsides are really excited about because they know it's going to create more opportunities where they're open."
Thompson, who received All-Big West honorable mention after getting 311 kills last year, is getting a wider role this season.
"We're going to use her at either pin," Welch said.
"Our new coach now is more about movement and staying busy all the time, and structure," Thompson said.
Welch has been so busy "getting my team squared away" the last six months that she has yet to enjoy many of the fruits of Santa Barbara beyond her morning view.
"I would like to play a few games on the sand at East Beach," she said. "I've been down there a couple of times but it was actually to watch a juniors tournament to see a couple of kids.
"I did go with the family one day but I had a hurt foot so I didn't get to get out there."
Her family has deep roots in Santa Barbara. Her grandfather, the late Joe Lantagne, taught at UCSB for many years, ran its Physical Education Department and even coached some baseball for the Gauchos.
"My mom's two sisters live here with their families," Welch said. "There are a lot of relatives for me here, and that's made it a real easy transition.
"I get Sunday brunch at a family member's house, and my kids can play with their cousins. So it feels right."
But she also knows enough about Santa Barbara to realize that she has to replace an icon.
"All you can do is look at the 38 years that Kathy gave and know it was something special," Welch said. "She has a huge history in our sport, has done so many great things for the sport, and you just appreciate all that.
"All you can do is go down your own avenue."
At least the one that leads to UCSB comes with a view.
Season tickets for Lantange Welch's first season at the helm are now available by calling 805 893-UCSB (8272) or by going online. Family Plans of five season tickets- two adults and three GKids- can also be purchased for $100. Adult tickets will receive the commemorative UCSB Volleyball long sleeved shirt with purchase and GKids will receive the 2013 GKids t-shirt.
Each season ticket holder will have access to the Founders Room for light pregame refreshments.