Credit: Courtesy of Westmont College

Santa Barbara has two very successful but very hungry college teams.

“It’s our turn,” said Ken Preston, speaking on behalf of UCSB men’s volleyball, a program that knocked on the door of the NCAA championship five times in the past 50 years but never broke through.

“We don’t want a stinking runner-up trophy,” said Ruth McGolpin, who took Westmont women’s volleyball to the brink of the NAIA title in her first year as the Warriors’ head coach but had to settle for second place.

Now, each team gets a crack at making history. Westmont goes first. The Warriors, who went 14-1 in a shortened Golden State Athletic Conference season, are ranked No. 3 among 24 teams battling in the NAIA women’s nationals this week at Sioux City, Iowa. The champion will be crowned on Saturday, May 1.

UCSB won a pressure-packed Big West tournament last Saturday to earn a bid to the exclusive NCAA men’s championships at Ohio State. The third-ranked Gauchos will face Pepperdine on Tuesday, May 4, the winner going to a semifinal matchup against top-ranked Hawai‘i on May 6.

Preston’s fingerprints are on both teams. He coached the Gaucho men for 30 years, including the 1988 season that ended with a five-set loss to USC in the NCAA final. He was Patti Cook’s assistant coach with the Westmont women for an additional eight years, helping them go as far as the NAIA quarterfinals. Slowed down by Parkinson’s disease, he retired for good in 2018, his dream of bringing a national title to his hometown unfulfilled.

McGolpin, who shared assistant duties with Preston, was promoted to Westmont’s head coach in 2019. It’s a dream job for the Goleta native, a three-sport star at Dos Pueblos High and a Hall of Fame volleyballer at Northern Arizona. She had coaching gigs at NAU, South Carolina, and Colorado Mesa before landing back where she came from. “I feel lucky being here,” she said.

Buoyed by their stunning run to the 2019 NAIA final, McGolpin’s Warriors had to wait through the postponement of the fall 2020 season because of the COVID pandemic. They got off to a 7-0 start in January but then had to go into quarantine for six weeks when half the roster tested positive for the virus.

“We learned to be present with each other in every moment, live every day, and appreciate every opportunity,” said senior Maddy Morrison, described by McGolpin as the team’s “spiritual advisor.”

After resuming play in late March, the Warriors finished with a 14-1 record, 10-0 in the GSAC, and three all-conference honorees: Lexi Malone, a powerful sophomore who led the team in kills; freshman attacker Jessie Terlizzi; and Morrison, who mastered the defensive skills of the libero position.

A good omen for the Warriors is the site of the nationals — Sioux City’s Tyson Events Center — the same floor where Westmont claimed the NAIA women’s basketball crown a month ago.

“Our teams support each other,” hoops coach Kirsten Moore said. Morrison shares her dorm room with Lauren Tsuneishi, the basketball team’s lone senior starter, who won the Hustle Award at the championships.

“Lauren played with a fierce mentality,” Moore said. “When it’s your last shot, you go out and go for it.”

UCSB men’s volleyball coach Rick McLaughlin sees the same intensity in his four seniors — setter Casey McGarry, outside hitter Roy McFarland, middle blocker Keenan Sanders, and opposite hitter Randy DeWeese — who stuck around after their 2020 season ended prematurely.

They breathed life into the Gauchos at crucial moments in last week’s Big West tournament at Hawai‘i. In the semifinals, they came back from a first-set loss to Long Beach State, the two-time defending national champion, taking the match by scores of 16-25, 25-17, 25-18 and 25-15.

That win seemingly assured the Gauchos would receive at least an at-large NCAA bid, as they anticipated playing Hawai‘i in the final. But UC San Diego upset the Rainbow Warriors, who were still an NCAA shoo-in — meaning UCSB had to beat the red-hot Tritons or its season would be over.

San Diego continued its Cinderella run by winning the first set of the final, 25-22, and leading the second, 23-20. The Gauchos teetered on the edge of a crevasse. But they tied the score when a replay reversed an out-of-bounds call, and points by McFarland, freshman blocker Donovan Todorov and DeWeese put them over the top, 27-25.

Sophomore hitter Ryan Wilcox, a Honolulu native, also stepped up as the Gauchos finished off the tiring Tritons, 25-21 and 25-20. UCSB will take a 15-4 record and a 10-match winning streak to Ohio.

McLaughlin said the Gauchos’ return to the NCAAs for the first time since 2011 — when they lost 3-2 to Ohio State in the final — hinged on their comeback in the second set. “There’s something about our guys,” he said. “They don’t get rattled. They got back, with the seniors leading the way.”

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