Gauchos have thrived in playoff pressure cooker

It’s not about magic, UCSB men’s volleyball coach Rick McLaughlin said of his team’s run to the NCAA Final Four.

I think it’s just the drive of our guys,” McLaughlin told the media at a Final Four press conference at Penn State, where his 17-14 Gauchos will play top-seeded USC (23-3) in Thursday’s first semifinal at 4 p.m. (PT) on ESPN2.

Ohio State (24-6) and Penn State (24-6) meet in the second semifinal at 7 p.m. Like the Gauchos and Trojans, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are meeting for the third time this season.

Thursday’s winners clash for the national championship on Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPN2.

After going 11-11 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the Gauchos raised their game to a higher level once the postseason started and caught fire. They handed BYU its only home loss in the MPSF quarterfinals, beat Long Beach State in the semifinals and dealt USC its first home defeat in a five-set tournament title match last Saturday.

“They’re more competitive. They’re improving. They keep believing more and more, and it’s not magic anymore. It’s just the way we are,” said McLaughlin of his team’s high-level of play.

He said the team has thrived under the pressure of playing in elimination matches.

“Having our backs against the wall for sure is what is making the difference,” McLaughlin said. “These guys are all seniors or at least eight of them, six out of the seven starters, and they don’t want to stop and I don’t want to stop coaching them. It’s a group effort. We want to extend it as long as it will go.”

Senior libero Andy McGuire said the seniors’ desire to go out on top has driven the team.

“This is it for eight seniors,” he said. “That motivation, just not to lose and not go home, has really been the motivation that has driven us these last few weeks.”

“It’s not hard, and these guys are as serious as it gets,” McLaughlin said of the team’s focus and motivation.

Middle blocker Scott Slaughter expressed his gratitude at having the opportunity to play for a national championship in his senior year.

It’s pretty awesome to be honest,” he said. “Our redshirt freshman year was the only year we had made playoffs before this and none of us actually had an opportunity to play in that. So it’s kind of going three years without doing anything, then it’s like the pieces finally came together and we’re putting one last try together. We’ll just see how far we can take it.”

The Gauchos last played in the Final Four in 1988. The reached the final and lost to USC in five games.

Asked about the NCAA pairing the Gauchos against USC after they beat the Trojans in the MPSF final, Gaucho players weren’t surprised nor angry.

We were pretty happy,” senior outside hitter Jeff Menzel said. “We sort of looked at it as USC is not really happy. I think they wanted a sweet ride to the finals, but with us they’re not going to get it, so we’re just excited to get a shot at them again.”

Said McGuire: “We weren’t too surprised when we got that draw with our record. Some people said they should have been the four seed, this-and-that. We lost to Penn State in a match during the year. That was our ultimate goal to get to USC at some point.”

USC coach Bill Ferguson wasn’t surprised, either.

“Preparation-wise for the staffs, they probably cut our workload down 30 percent,” he said of the seedings. “We’ve played them three times in the last several weeks and we kind of already know what’s going on. (Penn State coach Mark) Pavlik and  (Ohio State’s) Pete (Hanson) have already played each other a few times this year so I’m sure that has cut down on their workload. I think the seeding is great and it is also cool. It puts an element of excitement into this for the fans and for the people who aren’t really involved. I think it is right on.”

McLaughlin said the advantage of playing USC again is they know what’s coming.

“It’s fresh in our guys’ heads. It’s fresh in their heads. It goes both ways,” he said. “You don’t have to focus so much on reviewing film from way back, and we’ll do a little of that still.”

On what his team has to do better against the Trojans on Thursday, McLaughlin said,A few things, no doubt. We have to block better. We let them get away with a few of their tendencies and things they like to run. We can serve a little bit better than we did. We did serve pretty well according to our game plan, but we can do better. And defensively, I think we can dig a few more balls.”