Gregory’s girls mount epic comeback for 5-set win

Rebecca Saraceno raised her arms in triumph and screamed at the top of her lungs. Coach Kathy Gregory gave a fist pump and mouthed the words, “That’s a fight.” And the UCSB fans in attendance at the Thunderdome Saturday saluted the women’s volleyball team with a roar after witnessing one of the biggest comebacks in program history.

The Gauchos fought back from the brink of being swept and pulled off a stunning five-set victory over No. 21-ranked UC Irvine in a thrilling Big West match. The game scores were 23-25, 27-29, 27-25, 25-16, 15-9.

Saraceno blasted a career-high 29 kills and Leah Sully served up seven aces as UCSB won its sixth straight, the program’s longest win streak since 2005. The Gauchos, which snapped a five-match skid against UC Irvine, improved to 11-2 and 2-0 in the Big West, giving them their best start since 2002.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our intensity,” Gregory said. “Refuse to lose is what it’s all about. As we got better they got a little tighter. We hung in there, It’s all about never give up and never say die. That’s why I am so proud, because that spirit is back. That’s going to go a long way for us.”

The Gauchos’ spirit appeared to be down and out after suffering heartbreaking losses in the first two games. They were being dominated in Game 3, falling behind 18-9.

At that point, Gregory called her team over and gave it a pep talk.

“ ‘You just got to leave it out on the court. Where is our heart, where is our heart?'” she said of her remarks to the players. “The funny thing is once we found our heart we ripped their heart out. They were thinking that game was over. But once we won that, it gave us confidence. The big thing was our passing improved and our serving. The first two games we could have won but we weren’t in rhythm, and then to have the strength and show the conditioning we’re in and how we got stronger … unbelievable.

“It’s probably one of the best comebacks I’ve ever been involved in in coaching. You don’t come back from 18-9 in rally scoring.”

Senior outside hitter Saraceno and the freshman Sully were the catalysts behind the comeback.

Sully went on a seven-point serving run in Game 3 to rally the Gauchos from 19-12 down to a 19-19 tie.

FastFrame“What can you say about Leah Sully’s serving?” said Gregory, who had pulled her out of the game earlier because of some hitting errors.

“I told her to make it up when you get in the back row. Make it up with your serving,” Gregory said.

That she did. Her seven aces in the match was the most by a Gaucho since the rally-scoring format started in 2001.

“I just try to go back there with the most confidence I can and be able to do it for the team and get as many points as I can,” said Sully about her serving.

UC Irvine’s Kari Pestolesi ended Sully’s serving run with a kill, and the Anteaters would rebuild their lead back to two points at 22-20.

But the Gauchos would claw back behind the hitting of Saraceno, Kasey Kipp and Stacey Schmidt. Saraceno scored after a Sully dig to put them into the lead at 23-22. Kipp hit off the block for a 24-23 advantage and Schmidt added two kills down the stretch to make it 26-25. The deciding point of the game came when Riley Cropper of the Anteaters hit into the net.

Now all the momentum belonged to UCSB.

“I think at a certain point everyone realized we have nothing to lose,” Saraceno said of playing with a large deficit in Game 3. “We might as well go for it and don’t be afraid of messing up, and I think it worked. Everything meshed well together.”

Saraceno, who also had 15 digs to give her a third straight double-double, said she was determined to bring her team back after bumping the ball out of bounds after teammate Chelsey Lowe made a dig, which gave the Anteaters a 29-27 win in Game 2.

“I was mad. I hit that ball over the net to end the second game. I wanted to come back fired up and be there for my team and be able to put the ball away,” she said.

She didn’t let her teammates down.

“It feels so amazing; I’m still trying to catch my breath. I’m still shaking. It’s probably one of the most fun games I ever played,” said Saraceno.

After being blown out in Game 4, UC Irvine (11-3, 1-1) seemed to regroup in the 15-point fifth game, opening up a 6-3 lead. But the Gauchos would battle back again. Lopez scored with a hit down the line and Saraceno followed with back-to-back blasts to even the score at 6-6.

Lowe picked up another dig (she had a match- and career-high 23) and Sully converted it into a back-row spike to put UCSB ahead for good. A back-row violation followed by a couple of Sully aces expanded the lead to 10-6.

“She hurt us every time she went back to serve. That was unfortunate,” first-year UC Irvine coach and three-time U.S. Olympian Paula Weishoff said of Sully.

The Gauchos ended the match with consecutive kills by Saraceno.

Schmidt pounded 13 kills and Kipp added 12 with a team-high .391 average for UCSB. Saraceno hit .343. Setter Dana Vargas dished out 60 assists and had a career-high 20 digs.

The Anteaters had a balanced attack with four players in double figures in kills: Pestolesi and Juliane Piggott with 14 each, Cropper with 13 and Alexandra Hauser with 11. Setter Taryn Robertson handed out 52 assists.

Weishoff said her team got tight as UCSB gained momentum.

“We never could really get back and Santa Barbara played really good at the end of Game 3 and in games 4 and 5,” she said. “We couldn’t stop the momentum. They had all their options. We didn’t serve as tough as we did before and they’re in system.

Everything we did in one and two and half of three switched over to their side. It was that whole flip-flop of momentum and they played really well and they’re a good team.”