UCSB’s record of 14 wins and 14 losses in men’s volleyball might induce yawns if it were not for what happened two years ago. The Gauchos went 14-14 in the 2011 regular season and barely qualified for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament. But then they went on a road rampage, culminating in an upset of top-ranked USC for the MPSF championship. They beat the Trojans again in the NCAA Final Four, but Ohio State denied the Gauchos their ultimate glory by winning the national title in a five-set donnybrook.
“It’s kind of eerie where we are,” Dylan Davis said. Davis, a 6’9” middle blocker, was the only non-senior starter on the 2011 team. Now he is the only senior starter, as long as outside hitter Miles Evans is sidelined by a sprained ankle. “This team has more potential [than the 2011 group],” Davis said.
“This team is a lot younger, and it’s taken them longer to figure things out,” UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin said. “The way they’re playing now, they can compete with anybody out there.”
The Gauchos proved that last Friday night, when top-ranked BYU came rolling into the Thunderdome on an 11-match winning streak. UCSB twice knocked the Cougars to the mat, winning games one and three, but BYU prevailed in the end, 20-25, 25-20, 18-25, 25-21, 15-13. The Gauchos were up 13-11 in the final game, but Evan Licht’s serve into the net swung the momentum to the visitors’ side. It was a flaw in an otherwise heroic night by Licht, a junior outside hitter who had a career-high 21 kills.
“Our serving has been our biggest improvement,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve been knocking other teams off the net with their passing, which sets up our blockers.” Davis leads the MPSF in total blocks with 143. Jake Staahl, a 6’6” sophomore, and Jonah Seif, a 6’8” freshman setter, help the Gauchos put up a formidable wall.
Davis said that McLaughlin, in his fifth season as UCSB’s coach, instills a sense of responsibility in the players. “He lets us make changes,” the senior said. “He lets us be men out there.”
UCSB finishes the regular season with two more home matches, Wednesday night (April 10, 7 p.m.) against USC and Friday night (April 12, 7 p.m.) against Pepperdine. Then it’s on to the MPSF Tournament, where the top four teams will host first-round games. The Gauchos, who could finish anywhere from fifth to eighth, will be on the road, just like in 2011.
Evans hopes to be ready to return to action. “He’s a very important player,” McLaughlin said of the senior outside hitter. Evans, a former Dos Pueblos High star, was playing for SBCC two years ago. “I was rooting hard for UCSB in the NCAA finals,” he said. Before rolling his ankle, Evans was one of the Gauchos’ most potent attackers during their seven-match winning streak in March.
WESTMONT 400: The Sam Adams Multi-Events Meet has become Ashton Eaton’s version of the Daytona 500 — a season-opening display of speed. Eaton, the world record holder and Olympic champion in the decathlon, ran full-throttle around the Westmont College track last Friday, finishing the 400-meter dash in 45.64 seconds. That bettered the 45.68 he clocked last year and is the fastest lap ever run by a decathlete. The Oregon star also recorded a personal best in the shot put (49’3½”). He competed in four of the 10 events, tuning up for next month’s international decathlon at Gotzis, Austria. … Eaton’s fiancé, Canadian heptathlete Brianne Theisen, also hit high gear in the 100 hurdles, skimming over the barriers in 13.31. … Top scorers in the competition were Florida’s Gray Horn in the decathlon (7,526) and Maryland’s Kiani Profit in the heptathlon (5,909). Runner-up Aisha Adams (5,788) competes for the Westmont-based Women’s Athletic Performance Foundation, which presented last weekend’s meet.
JUNIOR ELEVATING: Former All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham set a high bar for athletic performance at Santa Barbara High — including a clearance of 6’8” in the high jump — but his oldest son is reaching higher. Randall Cunningham Jr., a junior at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, won the Arcadia Invitational high jump last weekend by clearing 7’1”. Over the summer, he soared 7’2”. Randall Jr. was a backup quarterback on the gridiron last fall. His dad, by the way, turned 50 on March 27.
TWO-FOR-TWO: Westmont College senior Tugce Canitez received her second consecutive NAIA Player of the Year award from the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association on Monday night in New Orleans. … Former UCSB coach Lindsay Gottlieb inherited a super-talented roster when she went to Cal two years ago, and the Golden Bears made it all the way to the NCAA women’s Final Four. Louisville knocked them out in the semifinals.
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