Settling in at Setter for UCSB
Ali Santi's volleyball odyssey took her from coast to coast even before it brought her to California's Central Coast.
But UCSB's senior setter, who came by way of Hawaii and Georgia, didn't realize just how far she'd come until a homecoming in Honolulu last October to play No. 5 Hawaii.
She was older and wiser - and unflustered by a fanatically supportive family.
"My dad (Mark) and brother Brock were wearing blue and yellow wigs," she said, "and they were being really loud."
So was her mother, Lori, who decided to take a night off as the color commentator for Hawaii's volleyball broadcasts.
"She just wanted to be a mom that night," Santi said. "So she was right there, cheering in the front row."
Santi's hand remained steady, nevertheless, guiding the upstart Gauchos to a 3-2 upset win. It was the turning point for a program that would also win a surprising Big West Conference co-championship.
The upstarts get started again on Saturday at the Rams Classic in Fort Collins, Colo., with matches at 10 a.m. PDT against Marquette and 6:30 p.m. against Colorado State.
"We don't want to be co-champions this year, we want to be outright champions," Santi said. "We've talked about that."
The well-traveled Gaucho, who played her freshman year at Georgia Tech before transferring to UCSB, has become the calm eye in the middle of any storm, even if it's 7,000-plus rabid Hawaii fans and a few raucous relatives.
"Coach talks to us a lot about preparing the same way for every game," Santi said. "Going into that match, I'm obviously home, but I tried to keep that from being a distraction.
"We had the same food, the same warmup, the same time schedule, and that consistency really helped to keep me from going, 'Oh my God! I'm in front of everybody that I know!'"
It wasn't until the final point that Santi was able to cut loose with her teammates and her wigged-out family.
"That dogpile at the end was unforgettable," she said. "We still watch the replay of that."
Santi is sharing the captain's duties this season with junior Ali Barbeau and fellow senior Jordan Pehanick. She's also gladly sharing the setter's position with junior Hanna Nielson. Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch made the switch from a 5-1 alignment to a 6-2 after losing three straight matches at the Pepperdine Tournament last September.
"We had more pin hitters and maybe not a middle who could attack behind real effectively, which is helpful in a 5-1," Welch said. "We had a lot more success once we moved to it, so it was an easy sell.
"They're both competitors and they want to win, and they know it makes our team better."
Santi and Nielson have embraced it by calling themselves "The Dynamic Duo."
"It's kind of cool to have three hitters all the time," Santi explained. "As a setter, it's really nice to have a lot of options, so I think it's worked out great."
No Gaucho is brighter than Santi, who won last year's Golden Eagle Scholar ring as UCSB's top female student-athlete with a grade-point average of 3.92. She plans to pursue law school.
But it's not just the IQ which makes her an MVP.
"Santi is definitely known as one of our hardest-working players," Latagne Welch said. "She has the ability to get to any pass and put up a hittable ball, and that's important, and she's become more confident and consistent in her location to make us effective. But she's also a really good leader.
"She wants to connect with the new players. She wants to make their transition easy. She looks for ways to do little things to help the team."
Santi was fond of Atlanta but didn't consider Georgia Tech a good fit, and so former UCSB coach Kathy Gregory got her on the rebound. This season marks the first time she's had the same head coach for consecutive years.
"It really has made a big difference," she said. "It's been nice just being able to train in the 6-2 system with all the hitters through the winter and the spring, going into the fall.
"It's nice to have the same system, the same mentality, for longer than six months."
Her mentality has also changed from that of the freshman who shuddered every time her grandfather, Daran Santi, showed up in a shirt that said "Ali Santi's Grandpa" on the back.
"It was in Georgia Tech's colors, and when I transferred, he got a new one in Gaucho colors," Santi said. "I used to call my grandma and say, 'Don't let him wear that shirt! It's so embarrassing!'
"But now I just love it. I'll tell everyone, 'There's my grandpa! There he is!' It's just so funny, how differently I feel about it now that I've gotten older."
She learned about the sacrifices of a team player, knowing full well that Team Santi will follow wherever her journey leads.