UCSB men’s volleyball coach Rick McLaughlin was curious to see how his team would respond to being ranked No. 5 in the country.
“They’ve never been ranked this high, so I want to see how they come out and play with a little bit of pressure as the No. 5 team,” McLaughlin told the News-Press last week.
The Gauchos 12th-year coach got his answer in a big way on Thursday after UCSB walloped Concordia, 25-15, 25-16, 26-24, in the first round of the Asics Invitational — hosted by UCSB — at Rob Gym.
After dominating the Eagles in the first two sets, the Gauchos struggled to put them away in the third due to some service errors and a lack of communication. But a powerful triple block on the fourth match point by Spencer Fredrick, Brandon Hicks and captain Roy McFarland sealed UCSB’s first sweep of the season in its season-opening match.
“I thought the guys played pretty good for the first time out,” McLaughlin said. “The first time out there are some nerves. Even though some guys are older, there’s still always nerves and getting a feel for competing again in front of the crowd and all of that.
“I thought they did pretty good.”
UCSB is not a tall team by volleyball standards, so its success this season, according to McLaughlin, is going to come from a fast-paced offense, led by senior setter Casey McGarry.
In the first two sets, the offense looked at times like it was in mid-season form.
McGarry was excellent at distributing the ball and keeping the Concordia blockers off-balance.
“The offense was in good timing (in the first two sets),” McLaughlin said. “Casey did a good job with that.”
The Gauchos’ serving was also in top form in the first two sets.
“When you’ve got guys on their heels with our serving, bombing away, it put them in a tough spot,” McLaughlin said. “They also missed a lot of serves. When it goes both ways for you like that, it can be a one-sided game.”
Senior Randy DeWeese led the Gauchos with 14 kills and three aces.
DeWeese finished with an impressive .440 hitting percentage.
“We have a lot to work on, but I thought we played pretty well as a team,” DeWeese said. “Just to get through the first match was good. They’re a really good team, and we had to work on ourselves a lot to be more consistent.”
Concordia didn’t go quietly after losing the first two sets.
The Eagles jumped on UCSB in the third set and led 14-12. But the Gauchos finally started serving and passing better, and the end result was a three-point run that gave them a 15-14 lead. An emphatic swing by Hicks for his only kill of the match was followed by a Concordia hitting error and an ace by McGarry that put UCSB in front for good.
DeWeese hammered a kill to make it 24-21, giving the Gauchos three match points. But two UCSB hitting errors and an ace by Eagles outside hitter Jordan Hoppe made it 24-24. McLaughlin called his only timeout of the match at that point to get his team refocused. The Gauchos got the final two points on a kill by DeWeese and the triple block.
“We need to have more consistency,” McLaughlin said. “I was telling our guys that we kind of let them into that game just by missing too many serves in the third game. We’ve got to be smarter at that.
“We didn’t have to go for the toughness level that we were trying to get to on those serves. We could have backed off a little and made them side out. That would have been the smarter thing to do. It’s early, but our guys are older, so I thought they probably should have been a little smarter at that. But they’re getting there.”
“Our serving and our passing, we need to fine tune everything,” he said. “We had a lot of communication errors. We have a bunch of guys trying to figure out where to go, like their roles and stuff.
“We’re just trying to figure it out as a team.”
McFarland and Keenan Sanders also had strong matches for the Gauchos with seven kills apiece. Sanders hit an impressive .700, while McFarland was solid with a .462 hitting percentage.
“I was pleased with a lot of guys,” McLaughlin said. “Keenan Sanders had a really good game. Casey had a great game, and our libero (Grady Yould) had a really good game. (Yould) playing in his first match, he was phenomenal.
UCSB continues play in the Asics Invitational with a match today against Benedictine Mesa at 5:30 p.m.