SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Last year, UCSB started a pair of freshmen middle blockers and relied on two veteran setters to anchor their offense. While there may have been questions entering the 2013 season, it was hard to argue with the result. In capturing the Big West Championship, the Gauchos boasted the top middle blocking duo in the conference and had one of the best offenses in league play.
"Our middle blocking corps brings back an extremely valuable year of experience, after basically throwing Phoebe Grunt and Allie Sullberg into the fire right when they got on campus," Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. "Having a year under their belts and now more time to develop a rhythm with our setters, we see our middle attack for Phoebe, Sullberg and ZZ [Meddaugh], as something that is much improved from a year ago."
As freshmen, Phoebe Grunt and Allie Sullberg were the best middle blocker two-some in the Big West, as they led the conference with a combined 252 total blocks. In conference play, they two were the only front row pairing that ranked among the top-five in blocks per set, as Sullberg led the league with her 1.45 average while Grunt was behind her in second averaging 1.42. As a team, the Gauchos dominated the net in 2013 with a league-leading 3.11 blocks per set average in Big West play.
In being named All-Big West Honorable Mention, Grunt recorded conference-bests with 120 block assists and 1.28 blocks per set on the season. She was also included in the conference's All-Freshmen team.
Sullberg had a terrific freshman campaign of her own, as she put up prolific numbers of 121 total blocks (fifth in conference) and 110 block assists (fourth). The Redwood City, Calif. native also led all middles with 1.23 kills per set, swinging at a .298 clip, which was also the best among UCSB middle blockers.
Joining Grunt and Sullberg at the net in 2014 will be redshirt freshman Kristen Berlo and senior Elizabeth "ZZ" Meddaugh.
A member of UCSB's No. 30th ranked recruiting class in 2013, Berlo utilized a medical redshirt last year with a knee injury, but looks to make her Gaucho debut this season. Originally from Palm Harbor, Fla., the 6-1 middle blocker helped East Lake High to a 29-2 record and the Florida 5A State Championship in 2010. After moving to Santa Barbara, Berlo enrolled at San Marcos High where her on court success only continued. In her 2012 senior season with the Royals, she was named the Channel League MVP and the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table Volleyball Athlete of the Year after leading the team in kills (160) and blocks (32). Also a member of UCSB's softball team, Berlo was a prolific pitcher for San Marcos, as she finished her junior campaign with a microscopic 1.25 era in 23 starts.
At setter, Hanna Nielson and Ali Santi shared time on the floor in a 6-2 rotation last season, which the coaches will continue to utilize this season. With both players as upperclassmen this year (Nielson is a junior, while Santi is a senior), the two will provide key floor leadership necessary to run UCSB's offense.
"Hanna and Santi have benefited from a full off season with our system. With that, our setting is becoming more consistent, balanced and intelligent."
The two helped orchestrate the Gauchos' offense last season to 13.66 kills per set, which was only second to Hawai'i (14.33) in the conference. They also combined for the third-best assists per set mark in Big West play with a 12.69 average.
UCSB will open the 2014 season with Marquette at the Colorado State Tournament on Aug. 30. Including the Golden Eagles, Santa Barbara will be facing five teams that competed in last year's NCAA Tournament. The Gauchos are scheduled to open their home schedule with Santa Clara on Sept. 19 in a tournament their co-hosting with Cal Poly.
Season and single-game tickets are now available for the 2014 season here.