UCSB men’s volleyball is picking up where it left off last spring: at No. 3 in the nation.
The Gauchos, 14-2 and ranked third when the rest of last season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic, trailed only BYU and Hawaii in the preseason poll released this week by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
“We have all our starters back except our libero,” coach Rick McLaughlin said. “The interesting thing is that we’re where we ended last year — we were just starting league play when the rest of the season was canceled.
“That’s probably where we’ll pick it up. We’re likely to play only league matches this season.”
Administrators from Big West Conference schools are meeting today to discuss the status of their winter and spring sports seasons. The league has already canceled its fall seasons.
“UCLA has decided that they’re not playing any non-conference volleyball matches … I think (the Big West) is close to that decision, too,” McLaughlin said. “But if we play league matches, it’ll be almost like getting back the other half of our season that we missed last year.”
All four of UCSB’s senior All-Americans have taken advantage of an NCAA waiver granting an extra season of eligibility for COVID-affected athletes. Libero Grady Yould was the only starter to not return.
“He got an offer to get his master’s degree and play in England, so he did that — it’s a great opportunity for him,” McLaughlin said. “We have two guys that are going to shoot for that spot.
“The odds-on favorite is Ryan Pecsok, who was in a battle with Grady for the job last year. It was a really tight battle, and he’ll be really good.”
McLaughlin, who was voted AVCA National Coach of the Year last spring, will be entering his 13th season with the Gauchos and 30th overall in coaching.
His Fab Four seniors are led by setter Casey McGarry, who was selected to the AVCA All-America first team last year. Randy DeWeese, a 6-6 opposite hitter, and 6-6 middle Keenan Sanders were second-team picks, while 6-4 outside hitter Roy McFarland received honorable mention.
“They all got (professional) offers, but they all have a goal to get it done and win the school’s first national championship,” McLaughlin said. “They wanted to give it all they’ve got. They were so close to beating BYU at BYU, so we know we have a shot.”
UCSB was one point away from knocking off the top-ranked Cougars in Provo, Utah, on Feb. 1. The Gauchos led 26-25 in game four before BYU rallied for a five-set victory. UCSB bounced back to win eight straight matches before the rest of the season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
McGarry ranked fourth in the NCAA in assists per set (10.59) and fifth in digs average (2.48) at the time last season ended. He twice earned the Off the Block National Setter of the Week Award.
DeWeese averaged 3.7 kills per set and was a two-time winner of the Big West Conference Athlete of the Week Award. Sanders averaged 2.02 kills per set with the nation’s second-best hitting percentage of .521. McFarland was averaging 2.48 kills per set when last season abruptly ended.
The Gauchos trained outdoors in the sand for four weeks during the fall. McLaughlin hopes to resume workouts at Robertson Gym in small groups by Jan 18.
“They all looked great,” McLaughlin said. “It looks like they didn’t miss a thing. Ryan Wilcox (6-2 sophomore hitter) looked healthy after dealing with a toe issue all last year. Brandon Hicks (6-4 sophomore middle) looked good, too.
“A couple of guys were a little out of shape from the COVID lockdown, but they got rid of that pretty quick. It’s one of the things I really liked about training in the sand. It’s really tough but it’s also forgiving on your body. It was fun to get to do that for a little while.”
The team passed all its COVID-19 tests during its four weeks of training. The Gauchos tested again on Wednesday.
“Our training room has been phenomenal in getting us tested,” McLaughlin said. “They’re handling all that, with a lab on campus getting it done.
“I can’t say enough about those guys, working their butts off to give us this opportunity.”
He said his players responded to his plea of creating their own “bubble” to limit their exposure to the coronavirus.
“Our leadership is what made us good last year,” McLaughlin said. “Getting those four senior starters back, it really helped in the fall — staying in the bubble, being disciplined.
“The seniors will do what they’ve got to do to get a season going. They do the leaning, and it’s been phenomenal.”