These Gauchos thrive in the cliffhangers

Oct. 28, 2010

By MARK PATTON NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

Living on the edge can be a thrill, whether it's on the crumbly bluffs of Isla Vista or with your spot on the UCSB volleyball team.

"I live on the ocean side of Del Playa Road this year, so we have a nice view," senior middle blocker Kasey Kipp said. "I live with four of my teammates, and everyone wants those spots.

"We all get to hang out on the balcony and watch the dolphins go by."

Their view atop the Big West Conference is just as inspiring and tenuous, with the surprising Gauchos hanging on to a half-game lead over Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State.

"I'd have to say this has been one of my most satisfying years," said Kathy Gregory, who's won 844 matches in 36 seasons at UCSB to rank fifth in NCAA volleyball coaching history. "To be where we are with a walk-on who hadn't even played one second before, and after having lost our major passer and best digger and best server in the first match, is really unbelievable."

The high-wire act continues this weekend for the Gauchos (13-9, 7-2 Big West) at Fullerton Friday and at Long Beach State on Saturday.

But the three senior citizens of Del Playa have walked that walk many times. Kipp, outside hitter Charlene DeHoog and setter Dana Vargas have had to remain steady in the face of ever-shifting conditions.

It began with last year's graduation of Rebecca Saraceno, a thunderous hitter who won Big West Conference Player of the Year honors. It continued when heir apparent Leah Sully suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first match, forcing Gregory to insert freshman walk-on Kara Sherrard into the starting lineup.

"From the very beginning, Kathy and Jeri (Estes, associate head coach) have been telling me that my mental game has to be so much better this year without Becca, and now Leah," said Vargas, an honorable mention All-American last year. "It's really forced me to mix and match.

"There's a little more pressure on me to set the right ball and not always the easy play."

It has all led to some moments of "anxiousness," she admitted.

"I want to win so badly that sometimes the coaches have had to tell me, 'Dana! Relax out there! Breathe!' "

Sully's injury did prey on Vargas' mind more than anyone else's, however.

"It was a tight set and she landed on one leg and pop it went," she said. "I was really sad, especially since I felt it was partially my fault. It was a bad set.

"Leah is so great, though. She's been a great team player and has traveled with us to every tournament and she's really supportive. We miss her out here, but Kara is doing a great job in her place."

Vargas has often turned to her housemate, DeHoog, and the 6-foot senior has responded with a team-high 3.13 kills per game.

"When we lost Leah, it put a lot of pressure on Char," Gregory said. "She had to pass more, and so she started out a little bit slow. I told her, 'Char, you sat all last year, and you waited for this opportunity to start ... Now you have to make something out of it.'

"She's done that with some really good games that we wouldn't have won without her."

DeHoog's four-year search for her place at the edge of UCSB's attack hasn't been easy.

"Freshman year, I was just stressed out and high-wired, and everything Kathy said I just took so seriously," she said. "I was just such a wreck. I was like, 'Oh, she doesn't like me!' But now I get her sense of humor. You just have to try and enjoy everything instead of putting all this pressure on yourself."

No one has been challenged more by Gregory this year than Kipp. She ranked as one of UCSB's blocking leaders for three years, only to learn that she wouldn't be starting as a senior.

"I decided at the beginning to move Stacey (Schmidt) from the right side into the middle for more of an offensive attack," Gregory said. "Kasey really arose to the occasion and decided that she didn't want to sit her senior year.

"She was so great about it, too. It's really a lesson that if something is taken away from you, have a good attitude and don't complain and just show me - and she showed me with a vigor."

Kipp now leads the Gauchos in solo blocks and is second in block assists despite having started just the last 12 matches. Only Vargas' tip plays have netted a higher hitting percentage than Kipp's .339.

Defensive specialist Katie Ring got to know her well two summers ago when Kipp took her into her apartment before UCSB's freshman dorms had opened.

"A lot of people think she's intimidating at first because she's tough and she's big," Ring said, "but once you get to know her, you realize she's a complete softy.

"Ever since I've known her, she's had her arms wide open: 'You're on my team and I'm going to take you under my wing.' I realized that almost right away."

The team returned the embrace when Kipp needed it most.

"They were always so supportive when I wasn't starting, and when I'd come in, they'd always cheer me on and encourage me," she said. "The New Mexico tournament was a big turning point for me because that was the first weekend that I really got to start.

"I could feel how excited my team was for me, and how confident they were in me."

The three senior citizens of Del Playa also room with two juniors - Schmidt and defensive specialist Chelsey Lowe - but all the Gauchos have had their quality time on the bluffside balcony.

"My teammates are my best friends," Kipp said. "They're the people that I'm going to stay closest to after college. They've really been a big support system for me the past four years.

"I just don't know where we'd be without each other."

She just knows it wouldn't be first place.