Fifth-Ranked Gauchos Clinch Postseason Berth After Sweeping Cal Baptist

Weston Nielsen (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Weston Nielsen (Photo by Tony Mastres)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The fifth-ranked UC Santa Barbara men's volleyball team recorded a season-best .557 team hitting percentage on Wednesday night to sweep unranked Cal Baptist at Rob Gym and clinch a spot in the MPSF Tournament for the second consecutive season.

Set scores for the match were 25-20, 25-14, 25-21. It was UCSB's ninth sweep of the season and second in the past 14 days over the struggling Lancers, who dropped to 4-23 on the season.

With the win, UCSB improved to 16-8 overall with a 15-8 conference record, pushing the team a half-game ahead of idle UC Irvine for fourth place in the MPSF standings. No matter what happens in Friday's season-closing match against BYU, the Gauchos can finish no lower than seventh place.

This is the first time that the Gauchos have secured back-to-back playoff appearances in the Rick McLaughlin era, and the first time overall since the 2006-07 seasons.

The victory was one of the more dominant offensive performances in recent memory for the Gauchos. The team's .557 hitting percentage was the fourth highest UCSB clip in the rally-scoring era, ninth highest all-time, and the best since hitting a program record .667 at Cal State Northridge on Jan. 21, 2011.

Leading the Gauchos on offense was junior outside hitter Weston Nielsen, who paced all players with a dozen kills on an efficient 16 swings. Fellow outside Matt Hanley added seven kills, while opposite Evan Licht recorded another eight while leading the team from the service line with three aces.

Junior middle blocker Jake Staahl was his usual dependable self at the net, contributing seven kills on 10 swings and co-leading the team alongside Licht with four total blocks. Sophomore setter Jonah Seif did a little bit of everything against the Lancers, going a perfect 5-5 on dump attempts while dishing out 36 assists and recording six digs, three blocks, and an ace.

The UCSB attack was at its best in an offense-filled first set, ending the frame with a .615 hitting percentage. Nielsen had a team-best five kills in the game, but four other Gauchos had at least three kills as well.

After a slow start that saw Cal Baptist take an 8-7 lead, Licht led a 4-0 run from the service line highlighted by back-to-back Nielsen kills that put the score at 11-8 in UCSB's favor and forced a Lancers timeout. That run turned out to be decisive as the two team's traded offensive blows the rest of the way, with the Gauchos taking game one on a Ryan Thompson quick attack.

UCSB dominated the middle set from the very beginning, jumping out to an 8-1 lead. Staahl was the star of that tone-setting run after contributing block assists on three consecutive points. After being shut out in the ace department in the initial game, Licht later uncorked his first two aces of the match to give UCSB a 16-7 lead that easily held up.

Like the first game, the Gauchos struggled at the beginning of the third and allowed Cal Baptist to open a 6-3 lead, necessitating a McLaughlin timeout. His team responded well to the move, as Hanley led the team on another lead-snatching 4-0 run, with UCSB double-blocks sandwiching an ace from the UCLA transfer to re-establish the Gauchos' momentum. That small lead was all UCSB would need, as neither team was able to establish more than two straight points the rest of the way.

The Lancers were led by opposite Johannes Brink's 12 kills, but no other attacker was able to manage more than five kills.

The Gauchos wrap up their regular season schedule on Friday night against the BYU Cougars at 7:00 p.m. That match, originally scheduled to be played at the Thunderdome, has been moved to Rob Gym.