UCSB’s Robertson Gymnasium has undergone a middle-age makeover. The interior of the facility, which dates back 56 years, is now bright and shiny with refinished flooring and walls, as well as new ceiling tiles and lights. Centered on the floor is a cappuccino-tinted rectangle. It is the home court of the Gaucho men’s volleyball team.
The Gauchos have an outlook for the 2015 season that is as bright as the new look of Rob Gym. Ranked No. 4 in the national coaches’ preseason poll, they swept their first three opponents of the season last week and then capped the UCSB-Asics Invitational by defeating Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne in four hotly contested sets, 25-20, 24-26, 30-28, 26-24.
“Santa Barbara is the best team in the tournament,” said Arnie Ball, legendary coach of the school better known, mercifully so, as IPFW. Ball will retire at the end of this season, his 35th at the helm of the Mastodons. He has guided them into six NCAA Final Fours, including a runner-up finish in 2007.
“He has been great for the game of volleyball,” said Rick McLaughlin, UCSB’s seventh-year coach. “Besides the success of his teams, his son Lloy Ball was a gold medalist.” The younger Ball was setter for the U.S. Olympic champions in 2008. Before last Saturday’s match, McLaughlin presented Arnie Ball with a retirement gift: a box of Titleist golf balls.
However, Ball’s concern on this night were the strokes of the IPFW volleyball players. When one of them hit the ball into the net, he called time-out and gently suggested they try to aim a little higher. He sent them back onto the court, turned around, and kicked a Gatorade bottle toward the stands.
UCSB had cruised in its first three matches against St. Francis (PA), Limestone (SC), and Princeton. The tournament paired those eastern schools against the Gauchos and fellow Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) teams UCLA, Long Beach State, and Cal State Northridge.
IPFW, which defeated Northridge and took a set from No. 5–ranked UCLA, came back strong against the Gauchos after dropping the opening set. The Mastodons took the second set and had a chance to go up 2-1 at 26-25 in the third set. Their reserve players were chanting “olés.” But UCSB’s Ryan Hardy, Jacob Delson, and Weston Nielsen restored order by slamming down spikes, and an IPFW blocker was caught in the net for a 30-28 Gaucho win.
“Wes-ton Niel-son … nooo-body home,” was the repeated call of UCSB announcer Cubby Jacobs, as the Gaucho senior recorded 11 of his match-high 18 kills in the third set. “Nielsen is our floor leader,” McLaughlin said. “He’s one of the best passers in the league.” And the Gauchos’ All-American setter, 6’8” Jonah Seif, turns those passes into balls that say, “Hit me.”
The fourth set also was nip and tuck. IPFW went ahead 22-19 when Delson hit a ball badly out of bounds. He received immediate encouragement from his Gaucho teammates. “They told me, ‘The next ball, you’re going to pass fine,’” he said. “I wasn’t going to ruin our chances.” UCSB got the next point, and it was Delson’s turn to serve. He hit an ace to begin a four-point run that put the Gauchos in the lead. Another one of Delson’s powerful serves caused an overpass by IPFW that Hardy turned into a kill. Kevin Donohue finished off another point after Nielsen saved a ball that descended from the rafters. UCSB scored match point on a block by Nielsen and Jake Staahl.
“This was a good tournament for us,” McLaughlin said. “We saw a lot of different styles. We learn as we go.”
The learning curve continues upward this weekend when the Gauchos visit Hawai‘i, which is always tough at home, for a pair of MPSF matches. Then UCSB has a two-weekend home stand ― January 23-24 against No. 6 BYU, January 30 against No. 1 Pepperdine, and January 31 against No. 10 Stanford.
A big reason to be optimistic about the Gauchos’ chances is the experience on their roster. Seif is recognized as one of the nation’s best setters entering his junior year. “He’s Steady Eddie,” McLaughlin said. Three senior starters ― Nielsen, Staahl, and Donohue ― were redshirts in 2011, practicing with a Gaucho squad that reached that year’s NCAA championship match against Ohio State. The 6’7” Hardy is a redshirt junior. Delson, a redshirt sophomore, was slated to start last year but had a bout of mononucleosis. The lone newcomer who played against IPFW was freshman libero Hayden Boehle, who was a high school All-American at Loyola of L.A. He had 16 digs in the match.
“This team has an opportunity to get something we never did,” said assistant coach Cullen Irons, a player on the 2011 team that made UCSB’s fifth appearance in the NCAA Final Four, all of them resulting in runner-up finishes. “We’re expecting a lot. Things that would have been fine in the past are not acceptable.”
END OF THE TRAIL: I wrote on December 11 about Greg Hummel, a UCSB graduate who hiked the entire 2,660-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1977. It had been 37 years since I had last been in contact with Hummel, and he sent me a richly descriptive email about his PCT memories and his life since then. At the end, he divulged that he had ALS. I’m sad to report that Hummel died on New Year’s Eve at his home in Diamond Bar.