SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – The UC Santa Barbara women's volleyball team begins its season this Friday at the Baylor Tournament, taking on Illinois State at 2:00 p.m. PT in the season opener before facing Florida State and the host Bears later in the weekend. To prepare for the upcoming season, UCSBGauchos.com will break down the team's four position units – defensive specialists, middle blockers, setters, and pin hitters – continuing today with the middles.
This season, UCSB volleyball fans will be looking at an almost entirely-new group of middle blockers, as head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch returns just one regular from last season in 2016 Big West All-Freshman pick Rowan Ennis while a trio of freshmen will look to help make up for the production lost in the reliable duo of Phoebe Grunt and Elizabeth Sheffield, who both exhausted their eligibility as seniors last year.
Lantagne Welch will lean on Ennis as the team's top middle. A right side hitter to open her true freshman season, Ennis saw her game take off after converting to middle blocker halfway through the campaign, ending the year with a solid 1.67 kills per set on .228 hitting. The Virginia Beach, Va. native spent the summer improving her blocking in order to be a force on both sides of the ball. She showed flashes of dominance in 2016 despite her relative inexperience, evidenced by her 17 kills on .448 hitting against CSUN, but unfortunately had her season cut short due to a finger injury.
"With a year under her belt, Rowan is really coming into her own as a reliable middle blocker," said Lantagne Welch. "She's very effective behind the setter and her blocking has improved since a year ago. We expect her to make big contributions for us in the middle."
Behind Ennis, a trio of newcomers will battle it out for court time: Nicole Omwanghe (Claremont, Calif., Claremont HS), Kjia Rivers (San Diego, Calif., Del Norte HS), and Amanda Serex (Fremont, Calif., St. Francis HS).
Standing six-foot-two, Omwange opens her Gaucho career as the tallest player on the roster (alongside star outside Lindsey Ruddins, who is also 6-2). She was a well-rounded player at Claremont High, where she captained the Wolfpack to a league title and a berth into the CIF Semifinals as a senior. For her three-year varsity career, she totaled over 100 solo blocks while showing a knack for efficient hitting (.313 hitting percentage as a senior).
"Nicole swings at a high clip with a low error rate, and we think she will be relied upon even further as she develops more chemistry with our setters," said Lantagne Welch. "She also has natural blocking instincts that allow her to take out large areas defensively."
Rivers is another promising freshman middle, coming off a senior season at Del Norte High School that saw her notch 168 kills, 121 blocks, and a league-high .338 hitting percentage en route to League MVP honors. She paced her league in blocking in both her junior and senior seasons, and led her team to a CIF San Diego Section Title in 2016.
"Kjia has displayed quickness and a great jump," said Lantagne Welch. "Her high touch enables her to be a large target for our setters and she can cover huge amounts of space defensively to close just about any block."
Last but not least, Amanda Serex fills out UCSB's middle corps with an impressive scoring resume, finishing her final season at St. Francis HS with an eye-catching .488 hitting percentage. A strong student, she was a member of the honor roll all four of her years in high school.
"Amanda has one of the quickest arms on the team," said Lantagne Welch. "She will be difficult to defend."
Sophomore Charlie Robinson will likely open the season as a pin for the Gauchos, but is expected to be called upon at times as a middle blocker.
Check back to UCSBGauchos.com tomorrow for a breakdown of the team's setters. The Gauchos play their first home matches of the new season on Sept. 8 and 9 as part of the Thunderdome Classic. Season tickets are now available for the 2017 season and can be purchased by calling 805-893-UCSB or by clicking here.