photo by Jeff Liang
NOTE: 2019 will mark the third year of the revitalized, revamped National Invitational Volleyball Championships, which is a D-I postseason tournament dedicated to expanding the profile of deserving women's volleyball programs. We will check in on various teams through this season, with a particular eye to high-achieving mid-major programs.
by Kyle Koso
You play with a volleyball, not a crystal ball, so UC Santa Barbara head coach Nicole Lantagne Welch and senior outside hitter Lindsey Ruddins couldn’t know exactly what the Gauchos’ roster was capable of in 2019.
There were hopes, ideas and schemes designed to put young players in the middle of the fray, starting with the change to a 6-2 offense that brought in freshman Romoni Vivao as co-setter. As UCSB decoded the mystery of whom to put where, the team started winning and really hasn’t stopped, taking a 15-1 record (5-0 in the Big West) into a couple of key home matches coming up, this Saturday against Hawaii and next Saturday versus Cal Poly.
Both those teams are classic powerhouses in the Big West, but the Gauchos are hungry for the challenge. Three sophomores and four freshmen are chipping in with great moments, while Ruddins (three-time all-Big West first team, three-time AVCA honorable mention All-American) answers the bell with knock-down kill shots and a mix of other attributes that keeps the squad churning forward.
“It’s scary if you expect freshman to come in and produce a lot; coaches make the mistake of doing that sometimes. It’s been a pleasant surprise to have four freshmen really impacting our team, in regular roles,” said Welch, who is in her seventh year at UCSB. “The big thing is, you have to look at personnel of the group. For us, we have more arms in the gym, and we needed to get them on the floor. The best way to do that was to run a 6-2, and we have two very capable setters. We experimented with it, leaned on it leading into the season, and it’s gotten better ever since.
“Part of being in this 6-2 meant Lindsey was going to have to pass, and she’s embraced that at an extremely high level, and that’s allowed us to have more hitters on the floor, more balance and more team success. That’s what she is all about – she wants to do well as a team. The great thing, we have that go-to player you can use at any time, and she will deliver. She’s done it before, she’ll do it again, and that’s what she means for UCSB volleyball.”
As the plan unfolded, the Gauchos started to pocket some signature moments – topping an always sound San Diego team on Sept. 13, rolling to 3-0 sweeps in the past four Big West matches, and most notably, a 3-0 triumph over UCLA on Sept. 18 that marked the first win over the Bruins since 1998. It’s been a regular showcase of skills for sophomores Olivia Lovenberg, Zoe Fleck and Gigi Ruddins and freshmen Vivao, Deni Wilson, Tasia Farmer and Tallulah Froley, a redshirt who has been named Big West freshman of the week twice.
The elder Ruddins noted the team has been particularly strong at sharing the load and leaning on each other, while she’s still very happy to take her swings as the primary hitter.
“This summer, I was super excited to see all the freshmen play and see the potential we had; playing right now with such a young team, it’s impressive how they have been handling all the challenges they we’ve faced so far,” said Ruddins, who has nearly 1,800 career kills. “They’ve executed in every way possible when we needed them to. I’m excited for the future of the program and to watch all of them grow as players. We had changed a lot about our offense and defense over the spring, and they came in and had to take all that on right away. We’ve been running a fast offense; Moni picked it up pretty quickly, as did all the hitters.
“Going into my last season, there’s a little bit of pressure on it – I just want the team to succeed and do well. I’ve been trying to be the best leader and example for these young girls as I can be, so in the future they can succeed. The program is headed in such a great direction, and I want to help that any way I can. We have such great depth and a lot of hitters doing well. I like to think I have a connection with Olivia, the setter I’m mostly with, and she’s been great.”
Welch has had, by any measure, a very distinctive career in the sport. The Southern California native crossed the country to play collegiately at Maryland, then stayed out east for her first head coaching job at Miami. The Hurricanes were re-starting the volleyball program, so Welch was tasked will pulling together all the pieces from scratch – she ran the show for 12 years, earning ACC coach of the year honors in 2012.
When Welch decided to come home, she had to replace a legend on the UCSB sideline, as the program’s first and only head coach, Kathy Gregory, called it quits after 38 seasons.
“So few have had the experience of starting a program from scratch, and in a lot of ways it’s easier than coming in and changing up a previously existing program,” said Welch, whose recent recruiting classes at UCSB have earned national notice. “You do it the way you want from the start, but it’s a huge challenge … a rewarding one for sure.
“I’m a Southern California girl; my parents were both born and raised in Santa Barbara, and this was a dream spot for me. Following a legend is difficult; Kathy Gregory had unbelievable success, and the history here is amazing. Then you’re trying to get the type of player that meshes well with the kind of offense we want to run and our system. It took a while, then you get to the point where you have all your players … I’m not afraid of challenges, and this is a special place.”
The program has had to fight through some roller-coaster moments, where injuries thinned the roster and sent the Gauchos to records of 7-20 in 2015 and 8-20 in 2017. Last year, the team was 17-12 overall and played in the other D-I postseason tournament, the NIVC.
“All the girls I’ve played with the past four years had amazing talent, but things haven’t always clicked for us in the past,” Ruddins said. “This year, everything is clicking well. The impact of the young girls has been part of that. So far this year, our main focus is on us and playing our game, our offense and defense, and sticking to the coach’s game plan. Things have been going in our favor.”
“We had a tough couple situations with injuries; everyone close to the program knew exactly what was going on, so no one worried about what was happening,” Welch said. “We carry bigger rosters now, for the depth, because we don’t want to be in a situation where we don’t have significant depth. We’re 21 strong, and we love it. There is competition everywhere.”
With Cal Poly and Hawaii holding court as the recent dominant powers of the Big West, it’s fair to wonder if UC Santa Barbara is on the cusp of breaking through the barrier. However, the Gauchos are coming at this from a different direction.
“We try not to focus too much on rankings. We’ve taken every opponent we played this year super seriously and treated every team with the same respect I would hope teams would give us,” Ruddins said. “This weekend will be a really great test for us against Hawaii, who’s been dominant. Sweeping them last year at Hawaii is probably one of my most memorable games at UCSB. This year has gone as well as you could have hoped. There are a lot of emotions going into my last season … we have a good chance at winning the conference, but that will all be put to the test in the next two weekends.”
“We measuring ourselves by how good we can be. The bottom line is we’re a really good volleyball team, and it’s shown in our results,” Welch added. “We’ll get to continue to play against great teams and see how we’ll measure up. You try to prepare and go out to compete; we know we can play with anybody, and that’s what is important.
“You get through a big win and feel good about it, and then you have to go to the next one. There’s not a lot of time to reflect. But stepping back for a second, we like the progress we’ve made last year, and we made some adjustments this spring that are now paying dividends. We’re excited about the type of student-athlete we have in our program, and the recruiting interest … it’s bright for the future.”