MVB: No. 3 USC stopped cold by Gauchos

Fresh off a historic three-game win at UCLA that ended a season-long road trip, No. 8 UC Santa Barbara carried its momentum home, sweeping the third-ranked USC Trojans in Wednesday night’s MPSF contest at Rob Gym with scores of 25-19, 25-17, 25-22.

The win improved the Gauchos’ record to 9-5 with a 5-5 mark in conference play. Having won four of their last five matches, it is the first time this season that they have been at .500 in MPSF contests.

USC – who entered the match as the top-rated squad in the MPSF – fell to 9-3, 8-3 and dropped out of a tie for first place in the conference. It was the first time this season that the Trojans had been swept in any venue.

“We’ve been working really hard in practice and you saw the result of that tonight,” said UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin. “We did a really good job in the pass and serve tonight, and that led to us being able to get two and three guys on most swings.”

Senior outside hitters Weston Nielsen and Kevin Donohue led the Gauchos offensively on Wednesday, recording a dozen kills apiece. Nielsen was as consistent as can be, dropping four kills in each frame and hitting a team-high .304. Senior middle blocker Jake Staahl added five kills on just eight errorless swings.

Junior All-American setter Jonah Seif had yet another productive night, dishing out an even 30 assists and leading the team at the service line, picking up one ace in the process.

Where the Gauchos most apparently outplayed USC on Wednesday night was on the defensive side, as they outblocked the Trojans 9-4. Ryan Hardy paced UCSB’s netfront efforts with five blocks, while Seif (four) and Nielsen (three) each displayed good lateral mobilty all night.

When the Trojan hitters got past the block, UCSB freshman libero Hayden Boehle was there to stop them, picking up 10 digs, his third double-digit scoop performance of the season. The Gauchos are undefeated this season when Boehle hits the 10-dig plateau.

UCSB’s serving and defense forced USC into a .070 team hitting percentage, their lowest of the season. It was also the lowest attacking clip by a UCSB opponent in the MPSF this season. USC had no hitters reach the 10-kill level and the Chris Orenic, who had the most swings on their team with 24, had just six kills against nine errors. The Gauchos hit .262, slightly below their season average of .290.

The Gauchos dominated the first two games of the match, a statement which could not be said about the final frame. Despite going up 2-0, USC battled back and eventually got a tie at 7-7, then the teams went on to trade more than a dozen consecutive points, bringing the score to 14-14. At that point, the Trojans ripped off a 4-1 run, with setter Micah Christenson providing the exclamation point on an ace that made it 18-15 and forced UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin into a timeout.

Still down by three at 19-22, Slaught hit wide then long on consecutive points to bring UCSB within one. A USC timeout didn’t do the trick, as Nielsen notched a kill on the next play to get the tie and continue his serving run. Orenic looked to regain the lead for the Trojans on the next play, but a late whistle revealed that he been called for an illegal back row attack. Seif kept the freight train rolling on the next play, moving to his right for a solo block on Orenic. Then once again, Seif and Hardy denied an Orenic swing to clinch the match.

After dropping the first two points of game number one and eventually nursing a 3-6 deficit, UCSB wrested momentum from USC with a 5-0 run shortly thereafter with Nielsen at the service line. A Donohue crosscourt spike got the run going, and then was sustained by a Seif-Hardy double-block and kills from Donohue and Nielsen. Up 8-6, that lead held steady until the next rotation, when an Alex Slaught service error was immediately followed by a Nielsen ace to make the score 17-13. Seif’s ace at 22-16 put the Gauchos in the driver’s seat, and Staahl finished it off with a quick strike.

UCSB continued its dominance in the second stanza, using a 6-3 run early to go ahead 9-6. Seif unleashed a 5-0 spree at the service line just a few plays later – featuring a pair of Staahl-Nielsen blocks – to put UCSB up comfortably 15-8. USC couldn’t recover from that deficit, eventually dropping the game on an Christian Rivera swing.

The Gauchos will look to remain hot at home this Friday night, when they host Cal Baptist, who is 1-11 in conference play this season. First serve is scheduled for 7:00 p.m.