In volleyball parlance, it won’t be a bad thing if UCSB’s women get off to a bumpy start in their first match under new head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch. The Gauchos will face the high-powered attack of No. 3-ranked Stanford on Friday, August 30, and their ability to bump the ball – the basic skill of playing a hard-hit ball off the forearms – will be a key to their survival.
“We’re not going to be as tall as most of our opponents,” Lantagne Welch said. “Our team will be exciting to watch because they are fighters. They are going to be all over the floor, getting scrappy and finding a way.”
The match at the Thunderdome has an unusual starting time of noon, Friday, because the Gauchos will be traveling to Berkeley later in the day and begin playing in a tournament at Cal on Saturday. They will not return to their home court until the Big West Conference opener against Long Beach State on September 27.
Lantagne Welch, a California native, came to UCSB after 12 years as the head coach at the University of Miami (Fla.). She succeeded the legendary Kathy Gregory, who started the UCSB program and coached it for 38 years before retiring last January. Gregory’s legacy included 27 appearances in the NCAA tournament, but only one in the last six years. Miami reached the NCAA five times under Lantagne Welch, including the last four.
Schools like UCSB have faced lowered expectations in women’s sports because of football. The top 10 teams in the American Volleyball Coaches Association preseason poll all hail from major football conferences that reap TV money to pump into their programs: Texas, Penn State, Stanford, USC, Washington, Minnesota, Michigan, Oregon, Florida, and Nebraska.
Hawai‘i, which has a football team but competes in the Big West in other sports, is ranked No. 11.Volleyball draws huge crowds on the island. “Having Hawai‘i in our conference is a great thing,” Lantagne Welch said. “They draw tremendous interest wherever they play.” The Rainbow Wahine was the unanimous No. 1 pick on the Big West coaches’ preseason poll, and UCSB came in sixth out of nine teams.
That does not stop the Gauchos from setting high goals for themselves. “We want to get back into the NCAA tournament,” stated senior Leah Sully, a returning All–Big West hitter. “We want to go undefeated in the Thunderdome, and we want to win a preseason tournament.”
Sully is a Gaucho co-captain along with setter Ali Santi, a junior, and defensive specialist Shauna Klein, a sophomore. The range of class levels is indicative of the team’s togetherness. Lantagne Welch said, “I believe our team chemistry is strong. Everybody is on the same page.”
Besides emphasizing defense, the Gauchos will try to move the ball around on the attack. “A year ago, the outside hitter [Sully] was set a million times,” the coach said. “We need a lot more balance.” In actuality, Sully was called on to attack 1,798 times last year, the most in UCSB history.
Katey Thompson, another senior, “gets after it every day and is the hardest hitter on the team,” Lantagne Welch said. Gregory’s last recruits include 6’4” Phoebe Grunt, the tallest Gaucho by several inches. Kristen Berlo, a San Marcos High standout who was recruited by UCSB for both volleyball and softball, will miss the fall season because of an injury.
Two prominent players missing from the roster are Taylor Formico, an All-American as a first-year libero last year, and Jenna Wilson, a starting middle blocker. “We’re moving forward with those people who want to be here and want to play for UCSB,” Lantagne Welch said.
Gregory was incensed that Wilson, a player that she nurtured after finding her in Rancho Cucamonga, was apparently dismissed from the team because she wanted to be excused from the opening match to attend a wedding. The outspoken former coach called the decision “heartless,” but Sully said the team stood behind Lantagne Welch.
“Our theme is commitment,” Sully said. “Ironically, the two positions that are most competitive in practice are middle blocker and libero.”
Stanford’s presence in the Thunderdome on Friday will be fraught with pathos. The Cardinal returns all the starters from last year’s Pac-12 champions who went 30-4. They include senior Carly Wopat, an All-American middle blocker. Wopat’s twin sister, Samantha, who starred with her at Dos Pueblos High and was her teammate at Stanford, died by suicide in March 2012. Their parents, Ron and Kathy Wopat of Goleta, also have two sons. “It’s been a tough year and a half,” Ron said, “but we’re forging ahead with our family.”
HIGH FIVES: Volleyball practices at UCSB have become much quieter since the retirement of Gregory, one of the most energetically vocal coaches in any sport. But she has not been muffled. Her voice was heard on the radio last weekend, during an NPR program called Radiolab. The show attempted to pinpoint the origin of the “high five,” a ubiquitous gesture in sports for the last two decades. Gregory argued that women’s volleyball should get credit. “We did that back in the 1960s,” she declared. Volleyball players high-five each other not only in celebration but also to pick somebody up after a mistake.
The hosts of the radio show decided that former Dodger outfielder Glenn Burke deserved to be recognized for inventing the high five. He greeted Dusty Baker with an upraised hand after Baker hit a home run on October 2, 1977. Burke, a popular player, was revealed to be gay after his short major-league career, and he died in 1995 after contracting HIV. “It’s the better story,” said a Radiolab commentator, who also considered a high five by Louisville basketball player Derek Smith in 1978.
“We’ll never really know how it started,” UCSB’s Sully said. “All I know is, the high five has been a constant for us.”
BIG SHOT: From the state, to the nation, to the hemisphere, Stamatia Scarvelis was unbeatable in high school and junior (under age 20) shot put competitions this year. The 18-year-old phenom, with still a year to go at Dos Pueblos, completed her triple crown last week by winning the Pan American Junior Championship in Medellín, Colombia. Her golden mark was 50’8 ¾”, out-distancing Brazil’s Isabela Rodriguez da Silva by almost two feet.
WORLD CHAMPS: At the Junior World Water Polo Championships in Volos, Greece, a trio of Dos Pueblos graduates helped Team USA win its first women’s title since 2005. Kodi Hill (now at UCLA), Kiley Neushul (Stanford), and Tiera Schroeder (Cal), who accomplished a 67-game winning streak at DP, put together another streak with the national team. They knocked off Kazakhstan, Italy, New Zealand, Hungary, Greece, and Spain. Neushul scored three goals in the 9-7 victory over the Spanish women, the defending champions.
NICE TRI: The bicycle course was challenging with twists and turns, but Britain’s Emma-Kate Lidbury said she “thoroughly enjoyed” her romp through the Santa Barbara Triathlon last Saturday. Under ideal conditions, Lidbury (3 hours, 5 minutes, 50 seconds) and men’s winner Robert Wade (2:49:00) of San Antonio, Texas, raced through the long course in blazing times. They are not officially records, though, because of variations in the route over the years.
More like this story
For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports