WVB: Gauchos keep momentum with sweep of Riverside

Three UC Santa Barbara attackers finished with double digit kills and the Gauchos defense held visiting UC Riverside to an anemic .022 hitting percentage in a 3-0 sweep (25-16, 25-13, 25-15) on Senior Night at the Thunderdome, giving the team its fourth straight win to pull even with Cal State Northridge at the top of the Big West standings.

Winners of 12 of their last 13 matches, the Gauchos have caught fire down the home stretch, recording sweeps in six of their last eight. With a 17-9 overall record and a 12-2 conference record, the Gauchos will go to bed tied with CSUN for first place in the Big West Conference. The Matadors will match up with nationally ranked Hawai’i at 10 p.m. tonight in Honolulu.

Regardless of the outcome at Hawai’i, the Gauchos can clinch the Big West Title by winning their final two matches next weekend.

In their last home game at the Thunderdome, all three of UCSB’s seniors contributed in a big way. Libero Leah Sully had 20 digs in just three sets, outside hitter Kara Sherrard had a pair of digs and was solid at the service line, and opposite Katey Thompson had a typically productive all-around night, picking up 10 kills, three aces, seven digs, and five block assists.

“I was very pleased with the way we performed as a team tonight,” said head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch. “It was a great way to send off our seniors, who all played great tonight.”

Freshman outside hitter Ali Spindt led the Gauchos in kills once again with 12 on just 23 swings, giving her an outstanding .391 hitting percentage on the night. Ali Barbeau had 10 kills herself to round out the offense, while setter Hanna Nielson (22 assists) and middle blocker Phoebe Grunt (match-high six blocks) had standout performances as well.

Despite hitting at a respectable .260 clip against the Highlanders, UCSB’s defense forced UCR into recording the lowest hitting percentage by an opponent this season. In fact, the Highlanders had a negative hitting percentage going into the third set.

Belying the final outcome, the Highlanders played their best volleyball at the outset of the match. Their front row was able to put together four blocks early in the first set to keep the score tight at 9-9. At that point, UCSB went on a 3-0 run with Sherrard serving, but then recorded back-to-back errors to make the score 12-11 UCSB. The Gauchos were able to find their game from there on, going on a 13-6 run to end the set, including a 8-0 run with Nielson serving that featured a trio of Thompson kills.

A nine point run put UCSB up 12-2 at the beginning of the second set, ensuring that the Gauchos would easily go up 2-0. That early run included three consecutive blocks from Allie Sulberg and Jaylen Villanueva. The Gauchos would finish the second game with a blistering hitting percentage of .583, while Spindt dominated offensively with five kills.

After going down 3-0 to start the third and final frame, the Gauchos rebounded to take 15 of the next 17 points and take a commanding 15-5 lead. UCSB was content to trade serves at that point, clinching the final game with a crosscourt kill from Thompson.

The Gauchos wrap up their regular season schedule with a road trip down the 101-South, taking on Long Beach State on Friday night before matching up with UC Irvine on Saturday night.