USC becomes latest to beat UCSB in five

Not even a change of venue could help the UCSB men’s volleyball team change its luck at home and in five-set matches.

Moving from dingy Rob Gym to the bright lights of the Thunderdome on Friday, the Gauchos slugged it out with No. 2-ranked USC before falling short in the end, 30-27, 22-30, 30-24, 26-30, 15-10, in a hotly contested Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match.

The Gauchos lost their sixth match of the season in five games on Friday night.

A cause for concern?

“Not really,” UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin said. “We’re playing well and we’re battling. Every match we’ve lost has been in five games and when you get that fifth game it can go either way. We just got to play the biggest points of the match a little better.”

The 15-point fifth set got away from the Gauchos early. After Jeff Menzel hit out to knot the score at 3-3, USC’s Austin Zahn blocked a ball in the middle, Hunter Current served an ace down the line, Menzel hit another ball out after a bad pass and Zahn and Murphy Troy blocked for a point after another Gaucho ballhandling error. That gave the Trojans a commanding 7-3 lead.

“We dig a hole and we have to climb right back out of it,” said UCSB outside hitter Cullen Irons, who played a fine match with 17 kills, eight digs and four blocks assists. “That’s been a problem the last two years. We’re working on it. We just got to keep going forward.”

UCSB’s Jeff Menzel takes a swing at USC at the Thunderdome.

Tri Bourne sided out for USC, but the Gauchos couldn’t do the same. A breakdown on a middle attack followed by an overpass of a Bourne serve that resulted in a Zahn dunk gave the Trojans an 11-7 advantage.

“I think us and Santa Barbara are leading the league in five-game matches. Thank goodness we came out on top in this one,” said USC coach Bill Ferguson, whose team snapped a two-match losing streak.

The Trojans improved to 5-2 in a very tight MPSF race and 7-3 overall, while UCSB fell to 4-4 and 4-7.

“Our league this year … we’re eating our young,” Ferguson said of the competitive balance in the MPSF. “That’s an unbelievable (UCSB) team. Rick is doing a fantastic job with this program and he’s got some real good players. It was a battle and we’re just glad to get out. We needed this really bad.”

The fans really got into the heat of the battle, too. There was a moment in the fourth game when some boisterous Gaucho fans and USC players started jawing at each other.

Ferguson said it’s all about everyone wanting to beat USC.

“We’re a very polarizing group,” he laughed. “You’re either with us or you’re not. It’s pretty easy to know who your friends are. It’s fun. We like it. Everywhere we’ve gone we’ve drawn huge crowds. It’s been hostile, it’s been fun, it’s been competitive and we enjoy the environment.”

Tony Ciarelli, who was instrumental in the Trojans winning the first set and came up with some key plays in the fifth, led USC’s attack with 18 kills. Murphy added 16 kills with two solo blocks and five block assists. Bourne had 13 kills and 15 digs. Current and Zahn were productive in the middle, combining for 16 kills and hitting .417 and .350, respectively.

Menzel blasted 29 kills and hit. 203 to lead the Gauchos. Middle Scott Slaughter put away 14 balls, hit an impressive .619 and had six block assists and libero Andy McGuire scooped up 14 digs.

Despite all the close losses, McLaughlin said he’s encouraged that things will turn around for this team.

“We’re battling hard and it’s good. We’re still learning some stuff, so hopefully we’re taking some stuff away from these five gamers and we’ll push it over the edge,” he said.

As for things the team needs to work on.

“Definitely our serving gets a little bit weaker as we go throughout the match,” McLaughlin noted. “We start our pretty good and then we lose a little bit of focus there.

“Tonight we didn’t back off on our hitting like we had been, so that’s a good sign,” he added. “I think if we fix one thing at time we’ll get over it.”

McLaughlin liked the atmosphere of playing Thunderdome, where the lights are brighter and ceiling higher.

“I love it,” he said. “We need to get every match in there. We’re working on that too.”

It was sixth five-set loss for the ninth-ranked Gauchos this season (they are 1-6), their fifth at home, and it was their sixth defeat on the homecourt.


Irons and Menzel got the Gaucho fans pumped up again with a series of plays that resulted in three straight points, cutting the deficit to 8-7. Irons hammered a ball off a USC block and combined with Scott Slaughter for a block. Then Menzel crushed a ball from the back row after Jake Roesner alertly jabbed the ball upward to keep it alive after a block.