SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – UC Santa Barbara's journey to defend its Big West women's volleyball crown begins this weekend, as the Gauchos report to their first practice of the season Saturday.
UCSB had a historic season in 2013, as the program made its way back into the NCAA Tournament and finished first in the Big West with a 13-3 record under first year head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch. It was the Gauchos' first trip to the postseason since 2009, and the team's first conference title in eight years.
"We are all looking forward to getting started with the 2014 season," Welch said. "Our returners now have over a full year with the way we do things so we will be able to hit the ground running from the start. We have also known our newcomers for some time as our first complete recruiting class, and they are ready to jump right in to help our program in any way needed."
While UCSB finished 18-11 overall, the Gauchos hit their stride last season in Big West play, which included an eight-match win streak. During that stretch, the team pulled off one of the biggest victories in program history in a five-set thriller at No. 5 Hawai'i. With the win, the Gauchos ended the Rainbow Wahine's 41-match conference win streak that dated back to 1994. UCSB also pulled off the season sweep over a Cal State Northridge team that was at one point ranked No. 21 in the country.
In preparing for her second season at the helm, the 2013 Big West Coach of the Year Nicole Lantagne Welch looks to lead the Gauchos back to the top of the Big West standings. UCSB has not repeated as conference title winners since it won four in a row from 2002-2005.
After being selected No. 6 in last season's preseason poll, the Gauchos stunned the Big West by earning the conference's top spot with a 13-3 record. UCSB tied national powerhouse Hawai'i and Cal State Northridge, but held the tiebreaker and was given the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Dating back to her tenure at the University of Miami, Welch has now guided her teams to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
Welch will see five starters return for the 2014 campaign, including three coming off all-conference seasons.
At outside hitter, the 2013 Freshman of the Year and All-Big West first teamer Ali Spindt will look to build on a season where she led the Gauchos in kills (315). In conference play, Spindt recorded the third-most kills with 207, while averaging 3.34 per set. The Menlo Park native also ranked among the conference's top-10 on defense with 221 digs (ninth).
Fellow outside hitter Ali Barbeau and middle blocker Phoebe Grunt also reeled in postseason hardware last year, as Barbeau made First Team All-Big West, while Grunt was honorable mention all-conference.
Barbeau was a revelation in 2013, as she nearly quadrupled her freshman output of 69 kills with 267 as a sophomore. She recorded 180 of her kills in conference play, ranking tenth among Big West players. Joining her in the top-10 of that category were Ali Spindt (third) and Katey Thompson (fifth), as UCSB was the only team to have three players rank among the top-10. As a team, the Gauchos tallied 13.66 kills per set in Big West play, which was only second to Hawai'i's 14.33 average.
At the net, Grunt led UCSB with 131 total blocks and 120 block assists, which ranked third and first in the conference, respectively. She is the program's first freshman middle blocker to be recognized by the Big West since Olivia Waldowski was named Freshman of the Year in 2003.
The Gauchos will have four seniors on this year's roster with Elizabeth Meddaugh, Jordan Pehanick, Ali Santi, and Keely Stevenson. Santi will take on an essential leadership role for the Gauchos in 2014. At setter, Santi was key in last year's offense, which ranked first in the Big West with 18 points per set in conference play. She averaged 4.34 assists per set, while setting in a 6-2 rotation with Hanna Nielson.
In the junior class, Nielson is joined by Barbeau, Shauna Klein, Britton Taylor, and Jaylen Villanueva. After making the all-freshman team in 2011, Nielson took a redshirt season before coming back to game action last season. Under Welch, the setter seamlessly made her way back into a starting role for UCSB and led the Gauchos with 719 assists.
As a regular in the 2013 rotation, Villanueva provided consistent offensive play for the Gauchos with 1.46 kills per set last season at opposite. That figure shows a significant jump from her 0.94 average from her freshman campaign. The opposite caught fire towards the end of last season, as she recorded a career-best 20 kills at Long Beach State (11/29/13). She also tallied 11 kills in Northridge to help the Gauchos pull off the season sweep over the Matadors (11/16/13).
Along with Grunt and Spindt, Allie Sullberg rounds out this season's sophomore class. Sullberg was a perennial starter up front last season alongside Grunt, as she also put up prolific numbers with 121 total blocks (fifth in conference) and 110 block assists (fourth).
For the freshman class, the Gauchos welcome newcomers Sydney Bast (Lib), Kelly Bielaski (Lib), Chanel Hoffman (OH), Jane Lamp (Lib), Noa Nightingale (S/Opp), and Megan Sullivan (MB/Opp) along with redshirt freshman Kristen Berlo.
After taking a medical shirt in 2013, Berlo will be included in the active roster this season as a middle blocker. The Santa Barbara local was a part of the 2013 recruiting class -which was ranked No. 30 in the nation- and was also the MVP of the Channel League as a junior at San Marcos High.
The Class of 2018 is comprised of three liberos, as the Gauchos will look to fill in the spot left by the program's all-time digs leader Leah Sully. UCSB will expect a competitive preseason amongst its players to earn the starting role.
The Gauchos will face a challenging schedule this season, as they will compete in seven matches with teams that went to the postseason a year ago. While going on the road to play highly ranked teams like Marquette (8/30), Colorado State (8/30), and Cal (9/13), UCSB will host powerhouse Hawai'i on Nov. 21 and Cal State Northridge on Oct. 18.
"Together, with our returners and newcomers we have a committed group of athletes excited to challenge themselves to become better," Welch said. "After tasting success last season, it is only making us all hungrier for more in 2014."
UCSB will also be co-hosting a tournament for the first time ever with Cal Poly starting on Friday, Sept. 19. During that weekend, the Thunderdome will host three matches, including two for the Gauchos as they face Santa Clara (9/19) and Northern Illinois (9/20). The Broncos and Huskies will also play each other during the tournament.
Check back here at UCSBgauchos.com for ticketing information on the 2014 season.