WVB: Gauchos start Big West play vs. Cal Poly

Ali Barbeau - UCSB Volleyball

Ali Barbeau and the UCSB volleyball team are the defending Big West champions. (Presidio Sports Photo)


UCSB’s women’s volleyball team begins its Big West Conference schedule this weekend with a Saturday-night matchup against Cal Poly in the Thunderdome.

The Gauchos are the defending co-conference champions having shared the title with Hawaii and Cal State Northridge last year in Nicole Lantagne Welch’s first season leading UC Santa Barbara. It was UCSB’s first conference title and subsequent appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2009.

So far this year, the Gauchos are off to a 5-6 start and have won two straight matches. The Cal Poly match is the third of a five-game home stand for UCSB, which hosts UC Riverside and UC Davis next weekend.

Last weekend, UCSB played at home for the first time this season and gave its fans two dominant wins over Santa Clara (3-0) and Northern Illinois (3-1) in the UCSB/Cal Poly Tournament. Phoebe Grunt and Jaylen Villanueva were named to the All-Tournament team, while Ali Spindt was named the MVP.

Britton Taylor stood out last weekend as well and is continuing to be a standout attacker for UCSB this season with her team-leading 2.82 kills per set average. In the team’s match with Northern Illinois, Taylor swung for a career-best 17 kills.

Following up a strong freshman campaign, Allie Sullberg has emerged as UCSB’s top blocker this season in averaging 1.03 blocks per set. Her best blocking performance this season was in a 3-0 sweep at Sacramento State when she recorded a match-high six blocks. The sophomore reached six blocks again against Santa Clara. She has also served as an offensive threat for the team, as she has averaged 1.29 kills per set with a .275 hitting percentage.

For the second season in a row, the Gauchos’ offense has been co-quarterbacked by setters Hanna Nielson and Ali Santi operating in a 6-2 rotation. Last season, the dynamic duo guided one of the Big West’s most efficient offenses that averaged 13.66 kills per set with a .249 hitting percentage during conference play. This year, the two have a combined average of 11.5 assists per set, while both are in the league’s top-10 in assists per set with Nielson’s 5.95 average (ninth) and Santi’s 5.56 mark (tenth). Santi was named all-tournament at the Sacramento State Invitational after averaging 5.3 helpers per set, highlighted by her 27 assist-performance against Fresno State. She recently recorded a double double for the first time thias season against Santa Clara when she finished with 12 digs and a team-high 15 helpers.