With the 2023 season underway, the NIVC looks at some of the programs off to a notable start as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
Think of a college volleyball program as a popular restaurant, where it takes many hands working together to function at a high level.
When management changes over to a younger assistant, there’s going to be some doubt swirling around – how will they multitask and handle paying the bills, keeping shelves stocked and the big room ready for a packed house on a Friday night?
Well, when it comes to keeping the plates in the air, Matt Jones has all the customers heading home with a smile.
Just a few steps into his 30’s, Jones is running the show as head coach of the UC Santa Barbara program, and his first year in the role has launched the Gauchos into an early 2023 spotlight with a 12-2 record and a chance to move to 4-0 in the Big West Conference after home matches this weekend versus Cal State Fullerton (1-10) and UC Irvine (3-10). Along the way, the Gauchos have pocketed victories over Utah, Iowa State (a Top 25-ranked team at the time), Pepperdine and Long Beach State – the latter win marking the first road triumph at LBSU since 2011.
UCSB hasn’t had a home match in about a month, and its return lines up with the team getting votes in the most recent AVCA poll.
“In retrospect, it worked nicely to have the very first weekend at home (with three 3-0 sweeps) with new pieces in the lineup and in a comfortable environment. The month away was good for the team as we had to grind it out,” said Jones, an assistant at the school since 2017 who took over after the retirement of Nicole Welch. “Building skills and playing in some tough environments, and fortunately for us we got some nice wins. We’re just starting school this week, so that was a break for us as well.”
Jones’ familiarity with the UCSB system certainly helped with the transition, as did the makeup of a roster packed with experience and ability. The setter position is being solved with junior Grace McIntosh getting primary work, with freshman Milan Rex showing immediate comfort in the 6-2 offense. And right there with all the savvy and determination you can imagine is a core of seniors, with offensive leaders Michelle Ohwobete (193 kills), Tasia Farmer (123) and Briana McKnight (112) pounding away in reliable fashion.
Defensively, senior libero Macall Peed has 256 digs, which ranks 18th in the nation. The Gauchos have looked sturdy from the start by winning all three of their five-set matches and holding opponents to a .171 hitting percentage.
“I’m about as lucky as a first-year head coach as you can get. The entire passing core are returning seniors; decision-making in a fast offense is vital to our success,” Jones said. “Having people who have been there before and are hungry for success because this is their last time … there’s something about being a senior. Inherently, you find another gear of desire. I don’t need to be over-coaching or pressing them in a big way; how can I help them refine and fine-tune and feel comfortable competing together?”
Getting hired as a D-I head coach has always appealed to Jones, a California native who crossed the country to play collegiately at Harvard before heading back West. UC Santa Barbara had been flexing some muscle during his time as an assistant, going 20-10 last season (16-4 in the Big West) and 21-11 (17-3) in 2021, so despite his relative youth Jones did have a bankroll of confidence in himself when Welch surprised her staff and decided to step down.
He said that while he doesn’t know every single D-I coach, he could only think of one who is younger – Trent Kersten at Loyola Marymount.
“I’m not having to do a rebuild. There are different challenges in this role, but I know all the departments – it’s probably less like drinking from a fire hose than others might have felt, and I know I’m fortunate,” Jones said. “Fund-raising and community relations were spots I thought we had room for growth, so I’ve been focusing a lot of energy on that, and at the end of the day this staff has a collaborative feel, so I’m not micromanaging.”
But at this time of year, whether you’re a grizzled veteran coach or a join-the-workout enthusiast, conference play is about to determine how the season looks come November. Hawaii, winners of the past three Big West regular season titles, was the preseason No. 1 for 2023 and beat the Gauchos twice last year; Long Beach State and UC Davis are also more than capable units and will likely post some big victories along the way.
Jones believes his team truly can hold up to any challenge, as long as its reliability under pressure remains a strong point.
“You’re playing teams that know you super well; we know them. They’ve been scouting those senior players a long time and know how to make life difficult,” Jones added. “When you’re at the top, other teams get very amped up for those matches. One thing we’ve talked about is, how do we build skills to allow our team to be as consistent as possible … we feel like when we do that, we’ll compete with just about anyone in the country.
“We feel like we’ve put that into place, but we won’t know for sure until the season is over. This group isn’t sitting around thinking it can’t beat Hawaii – we’ll have to play well to beat them, but it’s more about fine-tuning, scouting stuff, and just playing well than it is about mental hurdles.”