SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Playing in front of one of its loudest, most energetic crowds all year on Saturday, the UC Santa Barbara women's volleyball team held off a tough UC Riverside side en route to a 3-0 Senior Night sweep, 25-22, 25-21, 26-24.
"Riverside digs a lot of balls. They kept so many things up that you think might be down," head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch said. "You have to have the ultimate patience, determination and fight and will to outlast them. They frustrated us at times, but we were able to convert, and to sweep a team that's that gritty is a pretty great accomplishment."
The match might have gone more than three sets if not for the play of redshirt junior Lindsey Ruddins. In an all-around performance which was as dominant as any she has put together all season, the relentless outside hitter punished the Highlander defense for 22 kills, 17 digs and three aces. Her efficient .360 hitting percentage was her second-highest during Big West play, helping her reach 22 kills (7.33 K/S) in a three-set match for the fifth time in her career.
"Lindsey took it up a notch," said Lantagne Welch. "She took it to another level, put the team on her back and said, 'We're doing this, and we're doing it in three.'"
Besides the play of Ruddins, the story of the night was centered on the Gauchos' three seniors, who were showered with cheers and electric support from the outset. Libero Emilia Petrachi was her usual outstanding self on the defensive end, racking up a match-high 20 digs (6.67 D/S). It was her second three-set 20-dig outing of the year, and her third time reaching 20 digs in the last four matches.
"Definitely really emotional," Petrachi said. "It felt really awesome because our team was really supporting us, and we were giving our all. I felt the energy was for us, for the seniors."
Defensive specialist Lexi Rottman finished with a conference season-high four digs. In a third set which went down to the wire, she put away her lone ace of the night, and the 89th of her career, sending the crowd into a frenzy as she gave UCSB an 18-14 lead.
Setter Annie Hasselmann would make a late appearance in the third and final set, her 93rd in a Gaucho jersey.
"What a special senior class," Lantagne Welch said. "This journey we've been on with them from day one, to see them grow in confidence and skill and personality... The impact they've had on this program, they'll never truly know."
With their third consecutive win and their second straight sweep, the Gauchos – who could extend their campaign if they are selected to compete in the NIVC Volleyball Championship beginning later this month – end the regular season with the third-best overall record in the Big West at 17-11 overall and 9-7 in conference play.
Whether UCSB's season is extended or not though, Petrachi will go down as the program's all-time leader in digs, with her career total increasing to 1,959 following Saturday's win.
"This has meant so much to me. I was in Italy for most of my life and I didn't think I could achieve so much," she said. "Now, I feel like I can do anything, because volleyball has taught me so much and being a D-I athlete has really pushed every single one of my limits. I'm so honored to have been chosen and I feel so lucky right now. I feel like I belong to something."
Continuing a recent trend, freshman outside hitter Gigi Ruddins reached double-figure kills for the third straight match, tallying 10. The last four Gaucho wins have coincided with the younger Ruddins' last four 10+ kill outings.
Setter Olivia Lovenberg notched the ninth double-double of what has been a standout freshman season, registering 42 assists and 11 digs. Middle blockers Charlie Robinson and Nicole Omwanghe were stellar at the net once again, leading all players with six and five blocks, respectively.
If the Gauchos are selected to compete at the NIVC, they could return to the court for the first round of the tournament as early as Thursday, Nov. 29. Selection Sunday will take place during Thanksgiving weekend on Nov. 25.