January 18, 2014

Gauchos Topple No. 1 Stanford in Thriller

The UC Santa Barbara Gauchos pulled off the upset of the No. 1 ranked Stanford Cardinal in thrilling, five set fashion (25-13, 21-25, 12-25, 25-23, 15-12). The victory, fueled by the electric atmosphere generated by the nearly 500 fans at Rob Gym, is the first time since 2011 the Gauchos have dethroned a top-ranked team. UCSB previously defeated No. 1 USC in the NCAA tournament to reach the finals against Ohio State. UCSB improves to 3-0 on the season, 2-0 in conference play.

The passion was evident early for the Gauchos. The team gained a comfortable 8-2 lead, assisted by a Ryan Hardy service ace. After the Cardinal scratched back to get the score to 15-10, UCSB answered with a 10-3 point run to win the first set. Instrumental to the late set strength were three service aces from Jonah Seif and an additional service ace from Matt Hanley to clinch the set. Weston Nielson after the game highlighted the key to the Gauchos' success, "We executed our entire game plan. We went out and ripped our serve." He also noted that the service game allowed for the other aspects of UCSB's play flourish and ultimately secure the win. However, he added that their strong service game was hampered when playing from behind in a set.

UCSB struggled through the second and third sets. The second set saw six Gaucho service errors and the team trying to fight back from behind early. At the net, Stanford also blocked six of the Gauchos' swings. The third set saw the Cardinal rack up another six blocks at the net while hitting a combined .609 clip. Stanford's attack was led by Steven Irvin's 16 kills and Brian Cook's 17 kills in the overall match.

The fourth set witnessed the Gauchos break the tie at three points each, the first of seven tie scores in the set, and not give up the lead for the rest of the set. UCSB rediscovered their net presence from the first set and blocked five more Cardinal attempts. Junior outside hitter Austin Kingi slammed six of his total 15 kills to lead the Gaucho attack, none better than the final two kills to win the set and rally the UCSB faithful. Further, Evan Licht tacked on four of his own kills, for a total of 12 kills in the match.

UCSB carried their momentum and top-notch play into the decisive fifth set. Weston Nielson and Ryan Hardy teamed up for the first block, which was also the first point, in the set. Again, the Gauchos' net presence stymied the Cardinal attack, blocking six swings and forcing six attacking errors. UCSB capitalized on their defensive prowess, with Ryan Thompson and Jonah Seif teaming up to win the final two points, and the match, with blocks. Thompson finished witha total six blocks, including a solo put back, while Seif had a part in four additional stuffs. Hardy, Licht, and Nielson each assisted in two blocks.

Coach Rick McLaughlin noted that the comeback made by the Gauchos after the second and third sets was a huge step to overcome. He recognized, in particular, the clutch efficiency of Ryan Thompson on the night, hitting 11 kills on 15 swings, as well as Kingi's dominant strikes. McLaughlin was quoted as calling Kingi "as steady as they come." He downplayed the significance of the upset, however, adding, "In our league, everybody could be number one. We just go out and play. We have a good unit, they play together and they play hard but we can always keep improving.

The UCSB Gauchos  travel to Los Angeles on Tuesday for a heavyweight matchup against No. 6 UCLA before returning to Rob Gym next Saturday to face UC Irvine. UCSB will face a significant challenge from the Bruin squad responsible for handing Stanford their first loss of the season in five sets. UCLA and UCSB are both 3-0 overall and 2-0 in MPSF play.