Unable to pick up key stops in its season-finale, UCSB (17-12, 8-8) closed out it's 2016 campaign with a 3-0 loss to UC Irvine (12-18, 7-9) on Wednesday night. Finishing nine games better than 2015's 7-20, 3-13 record, the Gauchos end a very successful year with the fourth-best record in the Big West.
Santa Barbara struggled to stop the Anteaters' offense all night, who ended up with an efficient .318 team hitting percentage. It was UCSB's highest opponent hitting percentage since its conference season-opener against No. 13 Hawai'i.
"Sometimes it looked like we were just leaving the plane from Hawaii with our effort on the court," Head Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said, referring to the Gauchos' road match with the Rainbow Wahine less than four days ago. "We were flat, we were high error and we just gave them a ton of freebies. Our middle was super effective all night long, but we needed to run that more. Kudos to our two seniors for showing up big tonight for us."
In her final match as a Gaucho, senior Elizabeth Sheffield led the way with 10 kills while hitting at a .429 clip. After spending her first two years of eligibility playing for the UCSB club volleyball team, Sheffield ends her two-year stint with the program with 312 kills, 157 blocks, 40 service aces and a hitting percentage of .275. She also led the team during conference play with 0.94 blocks per set.
"Liz was a perfect match for this team," Lantagne Welch said. "She brings so much energy and fire and she's just a great person to be around. A great student-athlete who just loves to play, loves to compete, puts it all out there and brings that out in those around her as well."
UCSB's other senior and the team's captain, Phoebe Grunt, ended the night with six kills and a .455 hitting percentage. Grunt ends a very successful four-year journey at UCSB with the ninth-most blocks in program history (370) and eighth-most block assists (321). Her .324 hitting percentage is also the fifth-highest of any Gaucho.
"I can't even put it into words but Phoebe's meant for this team. She is the ultimate leader, the most selfless player, and she's just been amazing. Her legacy will live on long after tonight," Lantagne Welch said. "[Phoebe and Elizabeth] are two extremely special people and I'm just really happy that they both had special nights to put out on the floor tonight since the rest of us couldn't."
Irvine's Loryn Carter and Victoria Dennis had 11 and 10 kills, respectively, to lead the Anteaters. They also had two players in double-digit digs in Harlee Kekauoha and Arden Davis, who had 10 each. For UCSB, Emilia Petrachi led the defense with 13 digs, bringing her streak to 15 straight matches in double-figures.
Lindsey Ruddins, who dominated in UCSB's first meeting with UCI back on Nov. 5, was held to just nine kills, ending her run of ten straight matches with at least ten kills.
Things seemed to be going well for the Gauchos until midway through the opening set, when a 3-0 run by Irvine gave the visitors a 16-13 advantage. Hitting at a .200 clip in the first set, Santa Barbara couldn't find a way to close the gap. After an Anteater attacking error made it 21-19 in favor of Irvine, UCSB would give up four of the next five points, ending the set with a 25-20 loss on a service error.
Needing a bounce-back win, the Gauchos fell apart midway through a close second set, giving up an 8-1 run to fall behind 21-12. Four straight UCI attacking errors helped UCSB close the gap at 21-17, but it was too little too late. The Gauchos eventually lost the set 25-19, this time on an attacking error.
UCSB got off to a good start in the third set, using a 4-0 run to take a 9-6 lead. The Gauchos never led the set by more than two points, holding on to a slim advantage all the way until the Anteaters took the lead at 21-20. Trailing 23-21, UCSB got a clutch kill from Sheffield and scored on an attacking error the following point, bringing it the game to a 23-23 tie. However, a kill by Irvine's Victoria Dennis and a block on the final point sealed a 25-23 win and a 3-0 sweep for the Anteaters, who lost to UCSB by the same score several weeks ago.
The Gauchos will now head into the offseason confident in the bright future ahead of them, especially considering the progress seen from their freshmen over the course of this season. First-year players Lindsey Ruddins and Hannah Juley finished in the top four in the Big West in kills and assists per set, respectively, while taking home six of the first 12 Big West Freshman of the Week awards. Freshmen Chloe Allen (1.97 kills per set), Rowan Ennis (1.67) and Megan Rice (1.52) all also provided consistent offensive production at different times during the season.
Chanel Hoffman, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in late October, will also return for her senior year after averaging the second-most kills per set on the team this season at 3.15.
"We've got so much talent coming back, so much youth that's going to grow," Lantagne Welch said. "I think that's what's exciting. We have a lot of potential and a lot to look forward to with Gaucho volleyball."