Gauchos Outlast UCSD 3-2 in Wild Start to Big West Schedule

Roy McFarland (photo by Eric Isaacs)
Roy McFarland (photo by Eric Isaacs)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – No. 13 UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego faced off Friday night at Rob Gym in the first-ever Big West men's volleyball league match, and the already-historic event proved itself to be one for the record books, as the Gauchos outlasted the Tritons 3-2 in a wild, back-and-forth affair, needing extra points to clinch the fifth set after allowing the visitors to come back from a 2-0 deficit. 

Set scores for the match were 25-20, 30-28, 28-30, 16-25, 20-18. UCSB improved to 5-5, 1-0 with the victory while UCSD dropped to 8-7, 0-1. 

Led by sophomore opposite Keenan Sanders's eight kills on 10 attempts (21 kills, career-high nine digs overall), UCSB came out swinging in the first, taking it to the Tritons to the tune of a .419 hitting percentage. The Gauchos pulled away in the first thanks to a 5-1 run late, capped off by back-to-back kills from Sanders, that turned a one-point lead into a comfortable 22-17 advantage.

UCSB eked out an extremely-tight second set, with the two teams practically trading points from 15-15 on. The Gauchos had the first set point of many for both teams when the Tritons were whistled for a double touch to make it 24-23, but a kill from SDSU middle Bryan Zhu knotted it up again, one of four Gaucho set points the visitors were able to repel. UCSB was able to break through on its fifth chance, as Sanders's fourth kill of the frame sent sophomore setter Randy DeWeese (had a double-double and set season highs with 53 assists and 13 digs while adding four kills on four dump attempts) to the service line, where he found a seam on the right side of the court and snuck his jump serve inside the far line for an ace to put the Gauchos up 2-0. 

Things took a sharp turn for the Tritons in the third set, with the visitors coming back from a 24-21 deficit to force extra points. While a kill from sophomore outside Roy McFarland (career-high 13 digs) gave the Gauchos another crack at 25-24, SDSU responded and never trailed the rest of the set, clinching it eventually on back-to-back UCSB errors. 

UCSD rode that momentum fully in the fourth, hitting .333 to UCSB's .040 in a relatively unobstructed set victory. National kills leader Tanner Syftestad, who started off relatively cool, started to get into a rhythm in the fourth with five kills on nine swings. The Tritons led by as many as 11 on a Syftestad ace (team-high 20 kills, two aces) at 22-11.

After the see-saw act that was the first four sets, the decisive fifth certainly didn't disappoint. UCSD won the first two points of the set to make it look like the tenor from the fourth would continue on, but UCSB settled down and tied it moments later on a double-block from Corey Chavers (14 kills, team-high six blocks) and Connor Drake (12 kills, .417 hitting, four blocks). Neither team would end up opening a lead greater than two, setting up a dogfight down the stretch. 

UCSB would eventually flip the script from the third, nullifying match UCSD's match point at 14-13 with a quick hit from Drake, then keeping pressure on with five consecutive match points. While UCSD held them off for a while, the Gauchos eventually closed it out with a left-side spike from Sanders after a nice pass from Chavers helped extend the rally. Drake, who had three kills on as many swings, and Chavers, who had a team-high 3.5 points, were invaluable to the fifth set victory.

Other key contributors for UCSB included sophomore libero Grady Yould, who notched his fifth double-digit dig performance of the season while matching his career-high with 18 scoops, and redshirt sophomore Brandon Hopper, who chipped in seven kills and five blocks. 

The Gauchos will hit the road next week, traveling south for a make-up date with USC on Thursday night and a re-match with UCSD on Friday night.