Just as college students seek extra help in the form of study groups or CliffsNotes, Evan Patak has taken a similar approach in his fight to be a healthy contributor to UCSB men’s volleyball. Injuries have been a constant of the 6‘7” junior’s career with the Gauchos. But after a sore right shoulder kept him out of three full matches and a part of another this month, the 2005 All-American sought and found treatment for the ailment with a Montecito massage therapist.
“I found her through my network of physicians I’ve been seeing,” said the 255-pounder, who’s also fought through ankle and knee injuries during the past two years. “I get bummed out when I’m not able to play because I’m used to injuries, but I’m not used to sitting out. But [the massage] worked. I’d say I owe her about half of what I did tonight.”
The performance in question was his first full match since he returned from injury, and it was possibly UCSB’s finest moment of the 2006 season. Pepperdine entered Robertson Gym on February 15 with a No. 2 national ranking and without a five-game loss in seven straight matches dating back two years, but the Gauchos came away winners of a 26-30, 30-27, 37-35, 20-30, 15-13 thriller. Patak recovered from his own slow start to the night to record a total match-best 29 kills, including the clincher on match point. And in the nation’s strongest men’s volleyball conference, his presence — which vaults UCSB from a talented-yet-flawed team into one capable of beating the nation’s best — is badly needed.
The No. 12 spot the Gauchos owned in the national polls coming in was largely meaningless. Eight losses in their first 14 matches had sunk UCSB to the bottom half of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, a slate where 10 of 12 teams were in the Top 15 national rankings. In addition, only the top eight MPSF squads at the end of the regular season qualify for the conference tournament, the winner of which qualifies for an NCAA tourney that is a decidedly low-calorie affair. Just four teams make the NCAA tournament, an event won by Pepperdine a year ago. UCSB won its first two matches without Patak in the lineup before a three-set loss to UCLA on February 8. Patak saw action the following match against UC Irvine, but the shoulder injury sent him back to the bench, and the Gauchos fell 3-1. But the Pepperdine win moved UCSB from eighth to seventh in the conference standings.
“Tonight was crucial,” said Patak, his right shoulder wrapped in a volleyball-sized bag of ice. “It was going to decide if we were going to step up with the best teams or lay off and just be one of the other ones.”
Overmatched and inconsistent at times, UCSB still turned its urgent needs into desired results against the Waves. Bryan Berman, Aaron Richman, and Patak each had two aces, while David Kennedy totaled 10 kills. The Gauchos finally celebrated the victory a healthy 153 minutes after the match began. The partisan home crowd caught the upset-buzz for good in a tense third set, when Berman followed up a kill — which hit the Waves’ John Parfitt in the face — with an ace on the next point that tied the match at 21-21. The remainder of the set featured 13 ties before the Gauchos took a 2-1 lead against a squad where four of six starters stood 6‘7” or taller.
UCSB committed 24 of the match’s 46 combined service errors. Patak himself sent his first serve into the net and only had three kills by the end of the first game, when the Waves converted 18 of their 20 such attempts into kills.
“This was something I’ll look back on and remember as one of the highlights of my time in college,” said Richman, another junior who played both volleyball and basketball at Santa Ynez High. “Evan is our firepower. He’s an all-around good guy. We’ve had potential all season, and there are upsets every night in the MPSF. We think this is anyone’s league.”