Middle of the Action
Heading into the new season, the middle blocking position will provide the most experience on the floor with seniors Phoebe Grunt and Elizabeth Sheffield making their returns. The two made up the team's middle blocking duo in 2015 and led the Gauchos to 2.11 blocks per set, the third-highest mark in the Big West. Welch and her staff also brought in two new middles with freshmen Rowan Ennis and Charlie Robinson. An All-American in high school, Ennis tallied a gaudy career kills total of 1,340 to set First Colonial High School's program record. A Virginia Beach, native she named the 6A State Player of the Year as well as an Honorable Mention AVCA Under Armour All-American. Robinson was also prolific at putting away the ball during her high school days, as her career kills total ranked among the top-15 players Southern California.
Setting the Scene
For the first time during her UCSB tenure, Nicole Lantagne Welch will have two underclassmen setters quarterbacking her offense in sophomore Annie Hasselmann and redshirt freshman Hannah Juley. Hasselmann, who as a rookie played behind senior Hanna Nielson in UCSB's 6-2 rotation, led the team with 508 assists in 2015, averaging 5.13 per set. She was also a force at the service line in dealing out 24 aces, the second-most on the team. A transfer from Wisconsin, Juley will look to make an immediate impact with the Gauchos. Though she has yet to make her NCAA debut, Juley put together a staggering resume during her prep/club career, which includes being listed among Volleyball Magazine's Fab 50, she was a two-time All-American, including first-team All-American recognition in 2014. Her talent caught the attention of scouts early on, as her first All-America accolade came in 2013, when she made PrepVolleyball.com's team.
The Young and the Talented
The UCSB coaching staff has made a habit of collecting nationally ranked recruiting classes. With their 2016 crop ranked No. 24 by AVCA, the Gauchos have now secured three top-30 recruiting classes in four years. This was UCSB's second consecutive appearance in the rankings, as their 2015 collection was listed at a program high No. 18.
A third of UCSB's roster is comprised of outside hitters with Chanel Hoffman being the most experienced as a junior. Hoffman - whose season was cut short last year by injury - already has an all-conference accolade under her belt earning honorable mention during her freshman campaign when she paced the Gauchos seven double-doubles. She had one of her best matches a year ago, as she matched career-highs with 15 kills and six total blocks against No. 17 UCLA. The other two returners at the position are sophomore Devin Joos and redshirt freshman Lindsey Ruddins. Joos led the team's underclassmen last year with 105 kills (1.46/set) through her 72 sets of play. Before taking a medical redshirt, Ruddins posted a career-high nine kills and two block assists against CSUN. The two newcomers to the position will be freshmen Chloe Allen and Megan Rice. Allen - a Santa Barbara native - was ranked 94th on Prep Volleyball's Senior Aces List, while Rice was named Third Team AVCA All-America after leading Redondo Union HS to a Div. I Championship in 2015.
Can You Dig It?
On the defensive specialist front, the Gauchos have four on their roster with three returners, Emilia Petrachi who was Honorable Mention All-Big West as a libero last year. The Modena, Italy native finished second in the conference with 4.60 digs per set and scooped up the Big West Freshman Player of the Week award twice and Defensive Player of the Week once. Sydney Bast and Lexi Rottman are also returning for the Gauchos. Last year before being granted a medical redshirt, Bast put up a few stellar performances at libero including her career-high 18-dig performance versus San Diego State. Rottman played in 22 matches last season and found success at the service line, noted by her four-ace performance against Hawai'i. Rounding out the position is newcomer Maxine Burke who led JSerra Catholic HS in digs last year, helping them reach their second consecutive CIF postseason berth.
In the Big West preseason coaches' poll, the Gauchos were selected sixth with 39 points. Atop of the league were the usual suspects of Hawai'i and Long Beach State, respectively. The Rainbow Wahine - who were also ranked No. 6 in the national preseason poll - garnered all nine first place votes, while the 49ers collected 68 points in the league poll and also picked up some votes in the AVCA poll.
This year, the Gauchos will compete in five matchups against teams that made the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the first of which will come at the UNLV Tournament when they play New Mexico State, the reigning WAC Champion. Then in the Thunderdome Classic - which will feature three top-50 RPI teams from 2015 - UCSB will host seven-time defending Mountain West Champion Colorado State before facing San Diego in the California Mixer to close out their non-conference slate. The tough preseason schedule will help the Gauchos prep for the Big West schedule, which will open with a home match against No. 6 Hawai'i on Friday, Sept. 23.