A “Legends of the Dome” banner high on the wall at UCSB’s Thunderdome depicts Roberta Gehlke, a three-time All-American (1997-99) in women’s volleyball. On the floor of the Dome, a steady “thump, thump, thump” is the sound of junior Lindsey Ruddins hammering her way through a career that could make her UCSB’s first four-time All-American.
“Lindsey’s a stud. What can I say?” said Coach Nicole Lantagne Welch on Saturday as Ruddins was leading UCSB to the championship of the Thunderdome Classic. “She is a phenomenal attacker. It’s very difficult for teams to stop her, whether it’s the front row or the back row.”
Ruddins led the nation last year by averaging 5.84 kills per set, and she’s continuing to keep up that pace through nine matches this season. She crushed the ball last weekend, averaging 7.08 kills, as the Gaucho women took four-set victories over Texas Tech, Sacred Heart, and Seton Hall. Ruddins collected her second tournament MVP award of the season, having been named MVP of the Miami (Ohio) Invitational last month.
Lantagne Welch said she tries not to wear Ruddins out, like a baseball manager counting pitches of a valuable starter, but the 6′2″ hitter helps the Gauchos in many ways. “She has one of the toughest serves I’ve ever seen,” the coach said. “She can do everything well — passing, defense, blocking. She’s a very physical player.”
Ruddins displayed the full array in UCSB’s home opener Friday night against Texas Tech, as she totaled 33 kills, 16 digs, four blocks, and three ace serves.
She heated up in timely fashion against Sacred Heart on Saturday, after the visitors from Connecticut had seized the momentum by winning a chaotic third set, 25-23. The Pioneers were leading the fourth set, 11-8, when Ruddins took over. With 12 kills, she accounted for nearly half of UCSB’s points in a 25-18 finish. She launched many of her strikes in the back row, swinging with full power as she leaped from three meters behind the net.
“She is one of a kind,” said Olivia Lovenberg, UCSB’s freshman setter. “She hits so high, so fast; it’s insane. I don’t know how someone hits so well.”
Ruddins said one of her main concerns is “trying to stay healthy.” In her first college year out of Aliso Niguel High School, injuries forced her to the sideline as a medical redshirt. She rebounded in a big way in 2016, being named Big West Freshman of the Year, first team all-conference, and honorable mention AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) All-American. “I was pretty shocked to be recognized,” Ruddins said. “I just tried to work hard.”
The AVCA honored Ruddins again last year after she overcame a slow start from off-season ankle surgery. In spite of her efforts, the Gauchos endured a rare losing season (8-20). With new pieces such as Lovenberg, a precocious setter from San Diego, and junior hitter Torre Glasker, a transfer from Utah, UCSB is off to a 6-3 start this year.
“I love the competitiveness of sports and playing on a team full of girls I know as friends,” Ruddins said. “Winning is nice. If we play well together, we’ll win.”
“We’re playing at a much higher level [than a year ago],” Lantagne Welch said. “Our whole offense is tremendously better. We have a lot of room to grow, but we’re starting out at a much higher place.”
The coach said backup setter Lexi Rottman, a senior out of Santa Barbara High, “has a huge role for us” as a server in key situations. Former San Marcos star Chloe Allen, a junior hitter, has seen limited action, indicative of UCSB’s depth. “There’s competition,” Lantagne Welch said.
The Gaucho women were picked to finish in fifth place in the Big West preseason poll, and they will host one of the teams above them, UC Irvine, in their conference opener on Tuesday, September 18.
WORLD BEATERS: Santa Barbara natives Kiley Neushul, Jamie Neushul, and Paige Hauschild helped the United States stay on top of the women’s water polo world, leading the national team to the championship of the FINA World Cup over the weekend in Surgut, Russia. Jamie Neushul scored two goals in the title game, an 8-5 victory over Russia. Hauschild’s goal with four seconds remaining in the first quarter put the U.S. ahead for good, 2-1. The San Marcos High grad, a USC sophomore, was the second-leading scorer in the tournament with 15 goals.
RUNNING UP AND AROUND: Goleta’s Chris Gregory, 31, won the Pier to Peak Half Marathon over Labor Day weekend, covering the 13.1 miles from the Dolphin Fountain to 4,000-foot La Cumbre Peak in an hour, 35 minutes, 58 seconds. Former SBCC runner Tiffany Costello (1:50:22) was the first female finisher. … Community members are invited to run a 5K that will kick off the UCSB Lagoon Open, benefiting the Gaucho cross-country program, at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, September 15. After elite 8K races, there will be a post-race social at noon. Visit ucsbgauchos.com.