Gauchos beat Long Beach State, headed to MPSF final

LOS ANGELES – The Gauchos continued their winning postseason ways on Thursday night, pulling off their second consecutive upset in the MPSF tourney, this time against No. 3 (and the sixth seed in the MPSF tourney) Long Beach State  by a score of 3-1 (25-17, 26-28, 25-20, 25-23).

With the win, the Gauchos will advance to the Conference Championship Match for the first time since 1996. They’ll play No. 1 USC, which beat UC Irvine in four sets.

Leading the way for the Gauchos (16-14) was senior outside hitter Jeff Menzel, who was named to the All-American First Team. Menzel led the match with 23 kills, and displayed the dominance that allowed him to lead the nation in kills last season.

In the first set, the Long Beach State 49ers got off to a hot start, capturing the first three points of the match. Their momentum appeared to slow when setter Connor Olbright injured his hand, necessitating a tape job. That allowed the Gauchos middle defense to set the tone for the match. UCSB outblocked LBSU 15.0 to 8.5 as a team, in a bit of a reversal from the teams’ previous match-ups. Senior setter Vince Devany effectively flicked sets back to senior opposite Cullen Irons, which kept the Long Beach defense off balance for senior outside hitter Jeff Menzel. Devany would finish the night with 44 assists. As a team, UCSB outhit the 49ers .357 to .227, reflecting a season-long strength in restricting the opposing attack the beginning of the match. UCSB won the first set by a sizable margin of 25-17.

Though the Gauchos dropped the second set 28-26, they received one of the strongest defensive performances of the season from Cullen Irons. Irons had four of his 11 digs in the game, while initiating what might have been the play of the game: with the Gauchos down 13-10, Cullen laid flat out and scooped up a “pancake” dig after a long rally which promptly led to a kill from Menzel. Menzel chipped in another eight kills in the set. The game was a tight one-it took Long Beach until the fourth game-point to put away UCSB. Josh Riley clinched the set for the 49ers, picking up a pair of kills (one a cross-court spike and one a deflection off the Gaucho block wall) with the score tied 26-26.

The third set saw the Gauchos pull away a bit, as they jumped out to an early 10-3 lead. The Gauchos never relinquished the lead, taking the game with relative ease, 25-20. Scott Slaughter paced the Gauchos in game number three, picking up a kill on each of his six attacks for a perfect hitting percentage. Overall, Scott had one of the his most impressive attacking nights on the season. Already the conference leader in hitting percentage, Slaughter finished with 11 kills on just 14 attacks for a .786 hitting percentage, tops among all eligible hitters. Scott also tied sophomore middle blockerDylan Davis for the match lead in blocks with seven.

The decisive fourth set was the most closely contested of the night, featuring 14 ties and four lead changes. Six kills from Jeff Menzel kept the Gauchos in the game. With the score tied 23-23, a hard Menzel serve was unable to be handled by Long Beach State libero Kirk Francis, and his over pass was smashed for a kill by senior outside hitter Trey Valbuena, who finished the night with five kills and nine blocks. On the ensuing match point, a triple-block from Devany, Irons, and Davis sealed the match for UCSB.

Senior libero Andy McGuire, who was also named an All-American today as a second-teamer, had a strong overall match. He finished with 12 digs, his most since he recorded 13 against Stanford on Apr. 8. An All-MPSF Second Team choice, Andy has now recorded seven or more digs in six of his last seven matches.
The 49ers were led by the attacking duo of freshman Taylor Crabb and Josh Riley, who finished with 14 and 12 kills, respectively. Crabb also scooped up eight digs and recorded three blocks for a strong all around match. Long Beach finishes their season with a 15-14 record

The winner of Saturday’s 7 p.m. final will receive an automatic berth into the four-team NCAA tournament. The loser will remain a candidate for an at-large bid.