It took nearly a year for coach Rick McLaughlin to get his UCSB men’s volleyball team all back together for a real practice.
But now the matches are coming quickly for last year’s AVCA National Coach of the Year.
“They’re coming really fast,” said McLaughlin, who will open his 30th season of volleyball coaching today at 4 p.m. when the Gauchos play host to 13th-ranked UC San Diego at Robertson. “We first worked out in small groups, and went through all that protocol, but we’ve really only been all together now for a week and a half.
“Thankfully, we have some real experienced guys.”
The fourth-ranked Gauchos return all the starters from last year except libero Grady Yould. UCSB was 14-2 and ranked No. 3 nationally when last season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year’s Fab 4 — a quartet of seniors who all received AVCA All-America recognition — took advantage of an NCAA waiver to return and repeat their senior seasons.
They are led by setter Casey McGarry, who received First-Team All-America honors after ranking fourth in the NCAA in assists per set (10.59) and fifth in digs average (2.48). He was twice honored with the Off the Block National Setter of the Week Award.
McGarry, who turned down several professional offers to take another shot at an NCAA championship, looks game-ready, McLaughlin said.
“Casey McGarry is always impressive,” he said. “He’s the best setter in the country, I firmly believe that. He never loses his touch — he’s always ready to go. It’s something he was born with.”
The Gauchos will play UC San Diego at Rob Gym again on Thursday at 4 p.m. and then play host to UC Irvine in a Sunday double-header at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Spectators are not allowed, but the matches will be live-streamed at UCSBGauchos.com.
Although San Diego and Irvine are also members of the Big West Conference, this week’s matches won’t count in the standings.
UCSB will open league play next week with home matches against top-ranked Hawaii on Thursday at 4 p.m. and Friday at 6 p.m. The two teams will also play a non-league match on that Saturday at 4 p.m.
McLaughlin is thankful for the tune-ups, especially since Hawaii has already played four matches. Some schools such as Penn State have played as many as dozen contests.
“We’re definitely not where we were last year, but we can get there,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time. Whether we’re ready to play or not, matches are what we need.
“The four seniors who returned have the creative knowledge on how to play the game and how to win, it’s just a matter of getting their bodies back in shape. They’re not the biggest guys — we’re kind of a smaller team — but we’re pretty good when we’re jumping full-speed with our bodies in shape. And we’re almost there.”
He said his two outside hitters — 6-foot-4 Roy McFarland and 6-2 Ryan Wilcox “have been looking great, and (6-6 middle) Keenan Sanders looks phenomenal.”
McFarland received All-America honorable mention after averaging 2.48 kills per set. Sanders (2.02 kills per set) and 6-6 opposite hitter Randy DeWeese (3.7 kills per set) were both second-team All-Americans.
Although Yould is now playing in England, the Gauchos do have a capable replacement at libero in redshirt freshman Ryan Pecsok.
“Last year he battled Grady really tight for that spot,” McLaughlin said. “Grady just had the experience.”
The Gauchos’ 17-game schedule will be played entirely against Big West rivals although only 10 of the matches will count in the standings. The Big West Tournament will be played on April 22-24 in Hawaii, with the NCAA Tournament to follow at Ohio State.
The Gauchos lost to the Buckeyes in the 2011 NCAA Final.
“Those 10 years have gone by pretty fast,” said McLaughlin, who is entering his 13th season at UCSB, “but this last year has gone by real slow.”