SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The Gauchos ended the season on a positive – and dramatic – note on Saturday night, outlasting the UC Irvine Anteaters 3-2 (26-24, 15-25, 25-18, 21-25, 15-13). It was the fifth time in the last six matches that the Gauchos reached the fifth game and just the third time all season that the Gauchos were able to claim victory despite being outhit.
UCSB ends the season with a 16-17 overall record, their first losing season since 2008. They finished with an exact .500 conference record (9-9) for the first time since 1988. UC Irvine finishes with a record of 11-22, 5-13.
Before the match, a pair of very special Gauchos were honored. During warmups, UCSB players donned the No. 10 jersey of Melitta Sverev, who played for the Gauchos from 1979-1980 and helped them to a No. 6 national ranking in her senior year. Melitta passed away 18 years ago, but UCSB head coach Kathy Gregory still holds her in the highest regards in terms of her past players.
In addition, the team's sole senior – defensive specialist Erica Lau – was honored with flowers from her teammates, warm words from Gregory, and a rousing ovation from the Thunderdome faithful. Erica would serve in each of the five games, and did not record a service error.
Junior outside hitter Leah Sully once again led the way for UCSB, recording a match-high 25 kills to go along with 19 digs, giving her her 25th double-double of the season. Leah closed out the year with double-doubles in seven straight and 15 of her last 16 matches. The Irvine, Calif. native finished the year with 558 kills, giving her the fifth most kills in a single season in UCSB history and the second most in the rally scoring era. Sully can also lay claim to the most attacking attempts (1,798) in UCSB history.
Freshman libero Taylor Formico had a team-high 31 digs on the night, giving her an even dozen 30+ dig performances on the season – tripling the previous UCSB record of four. Formico totaled 792 digs on the season, obliterating the previous school and conference record by 140 digs.
The match started off better than the Gauchos could have dreamed, as Sully recorded two aces right off the bat. The Anteaters would not go down that easily however, making a defensive switch that paid off to the tune of a 20-15 lead. UCSB would fight back from that deficit with five straight points, and the teams would trade points all the way up to 24-24. At that deadlock, freshman setter Jaylen Villanueva and freshman middle blocker Britton Taylor put UCSB over the top. The two teamed up on a block to get UCSB to game point before Villanueva fed Taylor on a slide for the game clinching kill.
Villanueva had 17 of her career best 52 assists in the first frame, while Sully established herself early with seven kills.
The second game may have been the oddest the Gauchos have experienced all season. UCSB started off the set on an 8-2 run and looked prime to run away with the set and the match. However, a kill from UCI's Aly Squires sparked a 7-0 run that swung momentum back into the visitor's favor. The Gauchos improved little as the game went on, as UCI ended the set on a 23-13 run, including an 8-0 run to end the game. UCSB claimed just 28% of their sideout points for the game.
The Gauchos regrouped after the halftime break, hitting .316 in the third game to jump back out in front. Sully had six kills and six digs in the frame, frustrating the Anteaters on both sides of the ball.
Sully had another six kills in the fourth, but that was not enough to stop the duo of Shannon Fleming and Kristin Winkler. Fleming had five kills on a .714 hitting percentage while Winkler had 10 of her match-high 35 digs in the set, as UCI hit .340 as a team to bring the match to a do-or-die fifth.
The two teams matched up remarkably equal in the fifth game, remaining tied as late as 13-13. A Leah Sully kill set the stage for Katey Thompson to hit a booming attack of the hands of a UCI defender and win the dramatic match.
Junior outside hitter Kara Sherrard had one of her better all-around nights of the season, picking up a double-double with 15 kills and 13 digs. Jaylen Villanueva also joined the double-double club, scooping 14 to go with her match-high 52 assists. Katey Thompson was not far behind, finishing with nine kills and 13 digs.
UC Irvine was led by Aly Squires, who was tops on her squad with 18 kills. Shannon Fleming had 15 kills, a .361 hitting percentage and six blocks.
Kathy Gregory was pleased with her team's effort after the match. "After a tough loss against Long Beach State, it was going to be hard for our energy to be where it needed to be," she said. "Irvine pushed us to play our best, but the biggest thing for me is Leah Sully stepping up and carrying us both nights, really giving us the leadership we need."