SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – In its 2013 Big West Championship season, UCSB led the Big West with 18 points per match in conference play and also had the league's digs leader on its roster. While the offense returns the Gauchos' kills leader from a year ago along with other key returners and talented newcomers, UCSB's biggest task will be solidifying the starting libero spot.
On defense, UCSB will look to fill the void left by last year's libero Leah Sully – who graduated as the program's all-time digs leader. Competing for the starting libero job will be freshman Sydney Bast, freshman Kelly Bielaski, junior Shauna Klein, freshman Jane Lamp, and senior Keely Stevenson.
"We have a lot of new faces in our defensive specialist crew this year, with four of five of that group have yet to play a single point for us," Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. "They are eager and ready to learn. This will be the biggest unknown heading into the season."
A 5-6 libero, Bast ended her prep career at St. Lucy's Priory High School by earning All-CIF, team Defensive Player of the Year, and San Gabriel Valley Tribune Player of the Year honors. Though she made the switch from libero to outside hitter that season, her digs numbers only improved as she set a career-high with 258 scoops in 2013. Bast – who was Welch's first recruit at UCSB – also set career highs in kills (239) and service aces (48) as a senior.
Bielaski graduated from Dougherty Valley High School as one its most prolific players, as she set team records in career kills, digs, and aces. While she saw time at outside hitter and libero, it was her passing ability that impressed the Gaucho coaches. Although she played primarily at the pins as a senior, Bielaski managed 8.5 digs per match, which was the second-best average on her team. She was a four-time all-league selection with the Regents, earning first-team accolades three times.
Playing throughout high school at libero, Lamp averaged nearly 13 digs per match during her junior year when she played in every set (76) and recorded 4.3 scoops per set. She was also named the Lancer's Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
"Returning three of our four pin hitters is always a good thing and we add a couple of freshman that will challenge to be in the mix as well."
With young and talented pin hitters last year, UCSB went through growing pains in the nonconference schedule, but finished the season with one of the best offenses in Big West play. Led by last year's Big West Freshman of the Year Ali Spindt, the Gauchos have a number of key returners on offense as well as promising newcomers to maintain their offensive game plan.
Starting at outside hitter all year, Spindt led the Gauchos with 315 kills and was second with 328 digs. Immediately taking on a primary role for the Gauchos, the 6-1 sophomore had the lion's share of the team's sets with 873 total attempts. Spindt was one of only two freshmen to earn Big West Player of the Week honors after she helped the Gauchos clinch the season sweep at No. 21 Cal State Northridge. Against the Matadors, she recorded a career-high 18 kills along with 11 digs. Overall, she put up 13 double-double performances last year.
"Spindt is an impact player, a court leader for us and the type of player you want on the floor, as she will come through for you in any pressure situation."
Alongside Spindt, Ali Barbeau was a perennial starter in 2013 when she had a breakout season. As a sophomore, Barbeau blew pass her freshman total of 69 kills with 267, the third-most on the team, and was voted First Team All-Big West. The Salinas, Calif. native started the season on a high note when she was named all-tournament at the Cal Molten Classic in the first week of the season. She recorded 17 kills over two matches in helping the Gauchos go 2-0 in Berkeley. Later in the season, Barbeau set a career-high with 19 kills against UC Davis. That performance triggered a five-match streak of recording 10 or more kills.
"Beau is a player whose hard work allows for steady improvements in every aspect of her game and will be counted on as a leader of this 2014 team."
Also returning for her junior season is Jaylen Villanueva who was a regular in UCSB's rotation during conference play a year ago. On many occasions, Villanueva provided an offensive spark for the Gauchos, most notably in UCSB's matches at Cal State Northridge and Long Beach State. Against the then No. 21 Matadors, the 5-9 opposite tallied 11 kills, recording three in a row for UCSB to open the decisive fifth set. At Long Beach, Villanueva was pivotal in keeping the Gauchos close with the 49ers, as she set a career-high with 20 kills, connecting on .421 of her swings.
"Jaylen has improved her ability to move the ball around with her attack to score and is developing her backcourt skills."
Freshman Chanel Hoffman will look to compete for time at outside hitter, as arrives at UCSB with a decorated high school career. The six-footer ended her career at Santiago High School as Riverside County's all-time kills leader with 1,338 kills. In 2013, she was named the Div. II Player of the Year, All-CIF Player of the Year, All-League MVP, HS GameTime Player of the Year, and a Prep Volleyball All-American.
The accolades came on the heels of a season where Hoffman led the Sharks to a 40-1 record and to a top-50 national ranking. Hoffman has proven that she can compete with the best, as she recorded 21 kills off a forceful .667 hitting percentage against the No. 1 team in the nation, Archbishop Mitty High School (12/7/13).
"Chanel is coming off a very successful senior high school and club season and we look forward to that translating well to playing at the next level."
Nightingale and Sullivan played together at St. Francis High School where they led the Troubadours to a Northern California Championship second-place finish. In 2013, Nightingale was included in PrepVolleyball's Players to Watch and Senior Aces list, while Sullivan led all CIF Div. I right side hitters with a .353 hitting percentage.
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.