Santa Barbara, Calif. – The chase for a ninth Big West Tournament title begins this Friday for the UC Santa Barbara women's tennis team.
The Gauchos enter this year's conference tournament as reigning champs for the past two consecutive seasons. They recently ended their 2018 regular season with an 11-12 overall and a 7-1 Big West record to win the regular season conference title.
"I'm very proud of the team for winning the Big West regular season with only six players while most other teams had eight," Head Coach Simon Thibodeau said. "We knew that at the end of the season we would have to deal with our Big West matches and take care of them. It wasn't always pretty but we found a way to scramble and win the regular season and No. 1 seed. But it doesn't matter because everyone is now 0-0 in the tournament. [Still], the matches to end the season gave us some confidence."
Following its first-round bye, Santa Barbara will face No. 9 seeded UC Riverside this Friday in the tournament's Quarterfinals.
Santa Barbara is the tournament's No. 1 seed for the first time since 1999. It will attempt to three-peat this season, a feat it has not achieved since it dominated the Big West from 1991-1996 in which it won six-straight conference titles.
UCSB and UCR last played each other on Feb. 24, which concluded with a 4-0 shutout victory for the Gauchos. Riverside is coming off earning its first conference tournament victory since 2009 after a 4-3 win over UC Irvine on Thursday.
Despite being the No. 1, the Gauchos are aware of the need to remain levelheaded and take the tournament match-by-match, especially with the three-peat at stake this weekend.
"We have to win three matches regardless [of our first round bye]," Thibodeau explained. "You get to play a lower seed, but at the same time, they already have a match under their belt. We can't look further than Riverside as of right now. [Fortunately], four of our six players have been to the tournament twice so they know what it takes. It goes by fast, and we stay in our focus bubble and have a routine as well."
Over the years, UCSB's journey to the conference tourney can be defined by one term: consistency.
More specifically, Santa Barbara is a combined 28-5 in conference matches over the last four-straight season. It has not had more than two losses during this span with just one loss in the last three consecutive years.
After ending with a 4-11 record against non-conference opponents and finishing 0-6 versus nationally ranked opponents, UCSB's chances of being a top postseason contender seemed pretty slim.
Yet as the saying goes, there's no better remedy for a losing team than winning. The Gauchos ended their regular season as winners of five-straight, powering through the conference standings to clinch the No. 1 seed this postseason.
After some inconsistencies earlier in the season, senior Palina Dubavets has bounced back with a commanding presence. Individually, Dubavets ended the season with three consecutive singles victories. In doubles play, her and senior Natalie Da Silveira have been the highlight to the latter half of UCSB's season.
Currently ranked No. 42 in the nation, Dubavets and Da Silveira enter the Big West Tournament on a six-match win streak.
But the Gauchos' veterans haven't been the only ones to step up. Sophomore Amit Lev Ari has a strong year in singles play, finishing the regular season 10-6 overall. She has won three of her last four matches.
Junior Stephanie Yamada has also won three of her last four matches.
It is due to such all-around improvements by various players, especially with a team of only six players, that the Gauchos are gradually reaching their peak at the season's most important time.
UCSB and UC Riverside will play each other this Friday, April 27 at 9 a.m. at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Included is a livestream link for the match: http://statb.us/c/bwest/218147