Dana Vargas was captivated by the drama when, as a young girl, she watched UCSB and Long Beach State face each other in women’s volleyball. Her mother, Debbie Green, was a Long Beach assistant coach. “So, I thought Santa Barbara was the bad guys,” Vargas said. “They were always so obnoxious and scrappy. The matches were emotionally and physically exhausting.”
Dana’s older sister, Nicole, played for Long Beach. Dana decided not to follow in her footsteps. “She was always competing against her sister,” Green said. “She hates to lose. We stopped having family game nights because if Dana lost at Monopoly, she’d make it miserable for everybody.” Sort of, well, obnoxious. So guess where Dana ended up. She has begun her fourth year as the starting setter for UCSB’s Gauchos.
Vargas was seemingly bred for success. Both her parents were U.S. Olympic stars, Joe Vargas in water polo and Green in volleyball. They did not participate in the 1980 Olympics (the U.S. team boycotted the games that year), but they came back and earned silver medals in 1984. They came oh-so-close to the gold, and when they started dating the next year, Green was impressed that Vargas still was bitter over it. “This is someone who knows how I feel,” Green remembered thinking. “He doesn’t want to be second best. I like that.”
So how did Dana’s parents feel about her coming to UCSB, which more often than not has played second fiddle to Long Beach State in the Big West Conference? They gave her their blessing. From a coach’s perspective, Green realized that at 5’7” tall and slightly built, Dana was not going to be recruited by the rich and powerful programs. “You’re not going to be six feet tall,” Green told her. “You have to learn the fundamentals. You’re going to have to get noticed by college coaches with your skills, not your physical build.”
Gaucho coach Kathy Gregory welcomed Vargas with open arms. Then both of them went through two difficult years when the Gauchos failed to reach the NCAA tournament, ending a streak of 26 consecutive postseason appearances. Both of them grew through the adversity.
“Her mother and father knew Santa Barbara would be good for Dana,” Gregory said. “They wanted her to learn to be tough. Even though she would be unhappy, sad, they told her to stick through it. You’re not going to have your way every time. How else are you going to learn except when you fail? I hate to say it.”
For her part, Gregory said she has learned to adopt a holistic approach to the sport, emphasizing a balance of “body, mind, and spirit.” It was refreshing, Vargas said. “We changed our whole mindset. The whole team worked hard to get to the NCAA. When we made it last year, it was so exciting.”
Vargas also asked for her mother’s help. Green, who had retired from coaching, joined UCSB’s staff as a volunteer assistant. “I wanted to watch Dana, and now I’ve got a front-row seat on the bench,” she said. Vargas had her best year and was named an honorable mention All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
The Gaucho women’s loss to St. Mary’s in the first round of the NCAAs left her with “a horrible feeling,” Vargas said, and she wants to lead them further into the tournament this year. The task won’t be easy, as UCSB lost one of its top returning hitters, Leah Sully, to a knee injury the first weekend of the season. Everybody’s going to have to pitch in, Gregory said, as she entered her 35th season as head coach.
“I’ve gotten back to more my style of girls,” Gregory said. “I don’t have any prima donnas. I have humble, blue-collar people looking to succeed.” That includes Vargas. She has worked to build her physical, as well as her mental, strength, and in recognition of the former, she has acquired a nickname. “She’s Dana ‘Buns’ Vargas,” said Matt Hurst of UCSB sports information. “Random people come up to me and say, ‘Buns, what’s up?’” she said. “Oh, my gosh.”
The Gaucho women are playing on the road throughout September. Their next home match will be October 1 against Long Beach State.
Alison Sharp, the lone senior and team captain, is surrounded by 12 new faces on the Warriors this year, including 10 in the freshmen class. “I think we are going to be good this year, and the future is exciting,” coach Jim Smoot said. They have to compete in the NAIA’s toughest league, the Golden State Athletic Conference. It has five teams in the national top-10 rankings, including number one, Fresno Pacific; number two, Concordia; and number three, California Baptist.
Setter Kelsey Soos of Santa Ynez and middle hitter Jenn Waddill, a San Marcos High grad, return from a team that went 21-3 last year. Ed Gover was named the Western State Conference coach of the year. He is entering his 20th season. The Vaqs play their first 12 matches on the road.
Santa Barbara High’s gym will be buzzing on September 30, and Dos Pueblos (DP) High’s will get very noisy on October 19. That’s when the Dons and Chargers will meet each other in Channel League matches. They have won the last two CIF 1A championships — Santa Barbara in 2008 and Dos Pueblos last year — when the Chargers were one of the highest-rated teams in the nation. Nine seniors, most of whom are now playing in college, graduated from the DP team. Taylor Racich, a junior, returns with plenty of big-game experience. The Dons have a hitter, Eve Ettinger, who played a big role in their championship season.
Both teams have reloaded with promising young players. The Dons are going to the prestigious Archbishop Mitty Tournament in San Jose this month, and on October 29-30 they will host the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions.
San Marcos is “still green at the varsity level,” according to Royals Coach Erica Menzel-Downing. “We’re the underdog team in the Channel League.” Coach Jason Donnelly has built Laguna Blanca into a small-school power, having reached the CIF 4A/AA finals four of the last five years and winning a title in 2006. The Owls have scheduled matches against Bishop Diego, Carpinteria, and San Marcos this year.
Home Matches: Oct. 1: Long Beach State, 7pm; Oct. 2: Cal State Fullerton, 7pm; Oct. 22: UC Irvine, 7pm; Oct. 23: Cal State Northridge, 7pm; Nov. 2: UC Riverside, 7pm; Nov. 6: Cal Poly, 7pm; Nov. 12: UC Davis, 7pm; Nov. 13: Pacific, 7pm.
Home Matches: Sept. 14: Concordia, 7pm; Sept. 18: Hope International, 7pm; Sept. 28: Biola, 7pm; Oct. 2: Vanguard, 7pm; Oct. 12: Azusa Pacific, 7pm; Oct. 16: California Baptist, 7pm; Oct. 29: Point Loma Nazarene, 5pm; Oct. 30: San Diego Christian, 7pm; Nov. 13: Fresno Pacific, 3pm.
Home Matches: Sept. 28: Bakersfield, 6pm; Oct. 12: Ventura, 7pm; Oct. 15: Cuesta, 7pm; Oct. 26: Hancock, 7pm; Nov. 9: Oxnard, 7pm; Nov. 12: Moorpark, 7pm.