By MIKE TAKEUCHI NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
A combination of trust and a willingness to adapt has spurred coach Nicole Lantagne Welch and her UCSB women's volleyball team to the top of the Big West.
With Friday's sweep over Cal State Fullerton and Saturday's of UC Riverside, the Gauchos (17-9, 12-2) have a half-game lead on Cal State Northridge and a full game in front of consensus preseason favorite No. 10 Hawaii in the Big West.
Road wins over Long Beach State and UC Irvine in the final regular season matches this weekend would clinch the Big West title for UCSB for the first time since 2005 as well as earn them a berth in the NCAA tournament they last played in 2006.
"It has been a special journey this team, this group," Lantagne Welch said. "Many people doubted what we could do because they were concentrating on what we couldn't do or who wasn't here. But they didn't see who was here, all 17 players plus coaches pushing each other to be successful each day."
After longtime coach Kathy Gregory retired in January, Lantagne Welch became only the program's second coach in the last 39 years. While new to UCSB, the California native was not new to the West Coast or the demands of Division I. In a 12-year stint at the University of Miami, she amassed 243 wins and five NCAA appearances, including a 25-6 overall and 17-3 ACC record that garnered her ACC and AVCA/East Region Coach of the Year honors in 2012.
"Coming into a new system after being in the comfort zone of Miami was difficult because there I recruited the type of players to fit the type of play I like to run and the offense I run," she said. "I know that I had to be flexible as a coach and play the hand I was dealt."
The former University of Maryland setter (1990 to '93) credits the efforts of the senior trio of Katey Thompson, Leah Sully and Kara Sherrard for pulling a group that was a mixture of key returners like Jaylen Vilanueva, Ali Santi and Ali Barbeau, freshmen like Ali Spindt and Phoebe Grunt and a starting setter - Hanna Nielson - who returned to the team after a year off.
"I was pleased that, despite being a mixed group and me being new, the team, especially the seniors, really embraced what we were trying to do right away," Lantagne Welch said.
"Of course, with any coaching change, there are going to be adjustments and new players on top of that," Sully said. "But everyone made that adjustment really well. I was just worried that it might be a rebuilding year."
It didn't take long for the veterans to realize that their coach wanted this team to win now.
"We recognized pretty early that we had a great coaching staff that thought we could win this year, so we just fell into line with what they were throwing at us," Thompson said.
A tough preseason schedule, along with the team having to deal with what Lantagne Welch called "knick-knacky things" as well as an elbow injury to standout outside hitter Sully that forced her to move to libero, had the Gauchos taking their lumps early. But the coach felt things change during a tight four-set loss to USC in a tournament on Sept. 14.
"We were getting a little better and better, but it was then that they started realizing they were pretty good," Lantagne Welch said. "After that, it has been a gradual steady growth for us."
Since that loss, and one against the University of San Diego later that day, the Gauchos have gone 14-3. That success has Sully, Thompson and Sherrard thinking of possible matches beyond this weekend.
"I'm thankful (for the compliment) that she gives us credit but it was a huge team effort by everyone including our coach that has been the key to our success," Sherrard said.