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UCSB Women’s Volleyball Team Positioned to Make Comeback

The Gauchos, returning nine letter winners and adding eight newcomers, hopes for a happier ending than last season.

The UCSB women’s volleyball team experienced several program firsts in 2007. Unfortunately, the season will go down in history for all the wrong reasons.

Last year marked the first in the program’s 33-year history that the Gauchos finished with a sub-.500 record, the team finished with a 14-18 overall record, and 2007 also marked the first season that UCSB failed to make the NCAA Tournament since the championship’s inception in 1981.

If Kathy Gregory, who is entering her 34th year as the only head coach the Gaucho volleyball program has known, was one for making excuses, she could point out that the 2007 squad featured only one four-year letter winner. Or, she could point out that her starting lineup often featured as many as four underclassmen, including a freshman setter. She also could point out that eight of the team’s losses came against teams that advanced to the 2007 NCAA Tournament. But Gauchos don’t make excuses; they move forward.

“My goal for this season is for us is to be an improved team from last year,” Gregory said. “I think this year we have a little more talent; we have a little more depth. So, I think that is our number one goal: to be better than last year and to try to get the program back to national caliber. We are still continuing to improve our recruiting and we will still have some younger players playing, but I think we will be able to play at a higher level in matches this year.”

Outside hitters

According to Gregory, the 2008 Gauchos will be deepest on the left side with several talented players competing for playing time. Senior and 2007 All-Big West First Team selection Lauren McLaughlin is expected to once again lead the Gaucho offense. Last season, McLaughlin started every match and led the team with 4.36 kills per game and posted 21 double-double performances.

“I am depending on Lauren to be, again, the kind of player that is going to do a lot for us; passing, hitting, blocking. She is an all-around player,” Gregory said. “She is going to have to hit a lot of big points and we are going to look for her to be a closer. In big matches, she is going to have to take big swings. She is one of our best blockers and she has improved her serving and will be more of a threat there.”

Joining the Gauchos for her sophomore season and also competing for time on both the left and right sides is Charlene DeHoog, who started 15 matches in 2007 and averaged 1.54 kills per game.

“Charlene has improved tremendously since last year’s season,” Gregory said. “Her arm swing has gotten much better. Physically she has gotten stronger and improved her jump, so I look for her to help us offensively.”

A new addition to the squad is junior transfer Chelsea Pavlik, who comes to UCSB from Irvine Valley College, by way of Regis University. The Orange Empire Conference’s MVP and 2006 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year will add another option for the Gauchos on the outside.

“Chelsea comes in with a lot of experience,” Gregory said. “She is probably one of the best passers on the team. As she adjusts to the speed and the height of the level she is going to be playing against, she will become a very important player for us because she is very competitive. She will help out with her good ball control and enable us to establish a better attack because she passes the ball on position.”

Junior Rebecca Saraceno enters her third season with the Gauchos with two seasons of starting experience under her belt. The 2006 Big West All-Freshmen Team selection started all but one match in 2007 and was second on the team with 3.27 kills per game and led the squad with 41 service aces.

“Becca will also play left and right for us, which gives her good versatility because sometimes she will have to side out on the left and other times move to the right,” Gregory said. “She has a great jump serve. She also is a very good back row player so we will depend upon her to hit out of the back row.”

Also returning for her third year at UCSB is junior Lindsay Fletcher, who saw limited action in her first two seasons with the Gauchos. In 2007, she played in 18 matches and averaged 0.93 kills per game.

“Lindsay has worked on all three positions, so she will be a player that will come in as a blocking specialist or she will have to come off the bench and provide some spark for us,” Gregory said.

Rounding out the list of talented hitters on the left side is incoming freshman Nikki Doyle (Santa Maria/Pioneer Valley High School), who was a First Team All-Pac-7 League honoree for the Panthers.

“Nikki is a very good athlete, but she may not be ready to contribute until later in the season,” Gregory said. “Physically, she has a very good arm. Again, it is very hard for a freshman to start and play right away, especially at the outside hitting position, but she does give us a physical presence. She has a very good jumping ability and her quickness will help us in the future in that position.”

On the right side, freshman Whittany Radcliffe (La Habra/La Habra High School), who was named the Freeway League’s Most Valuable Player in addition to being a three-time all-league first team honoree, is expected to make an immediate impact.

“What we tried to do is improve our consistency in attacking by adding two players that are 6-foot-2 and over that will add to our size. So, we hope to be in a good offensive rhythm when league play starts,” Gregory said.

Middle blockers

With the loss of three-time First Team All-Big West middle blocker Brett Quirarte to graduation, the Gauchos will rely on a relatively young crew to man the middle in 2008.

Sophomore Kasey Kipp will return after starting 30 of 32 matches in 2007. In her first year with the squad, she led the team with 108 block assists and was second on the team with a total of 117 blocks.

“I am looking for Kasey to be much improved,” Gregory said. “She got a lot of valuable experience (last season). This year she is going to have to carry much more of an offensive load than last year and she is going to have to improve and be a force for us blocking.”

Also likely to be starting in the middle is incoming freshman Lily Lopez (Santa Ana/Mater Dei High School), who was a two-time All-Trinity League honoree.

“She has a very good sense of the game even though she is only a freshman, she is very consistent and steady in her movements,” Gregory said. “So, I am looking for her to handle the pressure of starting in the middle for us and contribute because she looks like a type of player that doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. She is very steady, not up and down, and that is all we are hoping for her to be the first year.”

Backing up Kipp and Lopez will be Saraceno, if needed, or freshman Gillian Vasquez (Santa Barbara/Dos Pueblos High School) who was an All-Channel League selection in 2007 for the Chargers. According to Gregory, Vasquez is “improving every day.”

Setters

In 2008, UCSB will return two talented sophomore setters who are ready and able to help quarterback the offense. The first is last year’s starting setter, Dana Vargas, who earned Big West All-Freshman Team honors after leading the Gauchos with 11.51 assists per game and also averaging 2.15 digs per game. 

“Dana has improved a lot. She is much quicker to ball, her release is quicker and she is better on defense,” Gregory said. “She is more mature at running an offense, so I think we will be a little more deceptive. I look for her to run a quicker tempo this year.”

This season ,Gregory intends to utilize the 6-2 offense more often, giving an increased role to back-up setter Jessica Welch, who pitched in 118 assists during her freshman campaign.

“Jessica has improved and that will give us the three-hitter option, which is a lot harder to defend than the two-hitters,” Gregory said. “The biggest thing we are trying to improve is our offense and to get more kills, so we can be competitive with more teams. Offensively we struggled last year at times and so we are trying to improve in that area.”

Libero

The second of the two seniors returning for their final season wearing the blue and gold is libero Leigh Stephenson. Last season was Stephenson’s first as a regular starter and by the conclusion of year, she had set a new Big West record for single-season digs, tallying 650 total while averaging 5.24 per game. 

“Leigh will definitely be the libero, and we look for her to have the same impact defensively (as last year),” Gregory said. “I would like her passing to take a little more court and for her to be one of the primary passers that can steady out our offense.”

A pair of freshmen defensive specialists also have been added to the roster to provide more depth in the back row: Jane Hinkle (Santa Barbara/Dos Pueblos High School) and Katie Ring (Portola Valley/St. Francis High School).

“Katie and Jane are both extremely athletic,” Gregory said, “but their adjustment to the speed of the game and their passing is going to factor into how much they play this season.”

The schedule

Gregory is known for putting together a tough nonconference schedule, and this season is no exception. The Gauchos will open the fall with three consecutive Northern California tournaments in which they will face eight opponents, five of which were 2007 NCAA Tournament participants, including Final Four participant Cal and national runner-up Stanford.

In all, the Gauchos will face nine 2007 NCAA Tournament teams, including two matches apiece against Big West powerhouses Long Beach State and Cal Poly.

“I know that most people after last year, having the first losing season, thought that I would schedule easier to have wins but it isn’t about me, it is about the team and getting us back (into the tournament),” Gregory said. “The only way we get back is by having the chance to compete against those teams. So, again, it does look pretty serious because those are all good teams that are definitely ranked higher than us, but you know what, I figure that by playing a tough schedule, if we are going to be successful, we have to knock off some of them.

“If were not (successful), it is only going to prepare us for the league. I don’t think there is a situation where if you are losing it is going to affect you, because you learn from experience and we have enough players that are competitive and want to really win. I know that some people don’t understand that, but I do think that has been the history of Santa Barbara and I don’t think I want to get away from that. I think you do have to play a tough schedule because everyone is really equal. You are not guaranteed anything playing a lesser schedule. The confidence builds when the team chemistry gets better.”

The 2008 Gauchos make their debut this Saturday as UCSB hosts an alumni match in the Thunderdome at 2 p.m. The regular season will get under way the following weekend when Santa Barbara heads to Berkeley for the Cal Molten Classic, where it will take on St. John’s of New York on Aug. 30 before facing host Cal the following day.

Lisa Skvarla is UCSB‘s assistant media relations director.

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