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In a recent practice, UC Santa Barbara outside hitter Corey Chavers ripped two jump serves.
Under the net.
Didn’t touch a shred of fabric.
Two serves in a row.
In a lot of gyms, that would have created a good deal of consternation. Instead, Chavers, the Gauchos’ top pin hitter and co-captain, had to endure a lot of ribbing.
“He hates when we bring it up,” UCSB senior libero Hayden Boehle said, “but I got to mention it. It was awesome.”
Pretty much everything has been awesome so far this season for UCSB. The Gauchos are 13-3, 1-0 in the super-competitive Big West, and remained No. 5 in this week’s AVCA Division I-II Men’s Volleyball Poll.
UCSB is home for UC San Diego in a Big West match on Friday and then is off a week before entertaining Lindenwood of the MIVA. And then March 14-15 come back-to-back matches against top-ranked and unbeaten Long Beach State.
“The culture changed when I first got there,” said UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin, who took over in June 2008. “We had to change some. But since then, it’s pretty much stayed the same.”
He gave credit to his assistant coaches, Cullen Irons and Vince Devaney, who played for him way back when, including in 2011 when UCSB lost in the NCAA final to Ohio State.
“They changed the culture, they were all about school and volleyball, and they brought guys with them,” McLaughlin said.
His team has a good mix of experience and youth, although the roster does show nine freshmen.
“They’re so into volleyball and they know how important the academic side is. They all had great grades in high school. They’re focused on the right things,” McLaughlin said.
“It’s important and if anyone strays a little the teammates are the ones that get on him. We don’t have to. That’s the kind of culture you want.”
Senior Hayden Boehle credits team chemistry.
“We are very close on and off the court,” Boehle said. We hang out with each other every weekend, we eat dinner with each other, eat breakfast, we’re a bunch of good guys that are all great friends together both on and off the court.”
Irons saw the transformation when McLaughlin came on board after stints at Loyola Marymount and the women’s programs at UCSB and Golden West college.
“It’s awesome. He took over in our third year, Vinnie’s second year, and it was a complete transformation,” Irons said. “We love what he’s done with the program. It’s been a complete culture shift, it’s school first, because we need that degree, these guys need that degree. I was one of the first to learn that, and then volleyball.
“We’ve really been focused on changing that culture. We want school and volleyball to be number one. Everything else is tertiary.”
In 2018, Santa Barbara was 11-13, 4-6 in the Big West. This year the Gauchos have been especially hot of late, winning 10 in a row.
McLaughlin deliberately put together a challenging pre-conference schedule. Since being swept by No. 6 UCLA January 16, they have beat No. 15 Ball State, No. 12 Purdue Fort Wayne, No. 10 Lewis, No. 7 Loyola, No. 9 BYU twice, Ohio State, Penn State, UC San Diego, and have exacted a measure of revenge by defeating UCLA at home in five sets.
“You play everyone you can. That’s what we’ve done. I tried to make the toughest schedule I could in order to face Long Beach, Hawai’i, Irvine, San Diego, Northridge. Going into all of these places is tough, and we go to Hawai’i for two this year,” McLaughlin said.
“It’s what you want. We’re in the best league in the country, and if you’re competing in that league, you’ve got a shot at the title. I wouldn’t want to be in any other league. “
Irons credited an overall team maturity for the early success.
“We’ve been a young team for the last several years. Now we have a couple of seniors that have fully bought in, and they want to be the best,” Irons said. “They work hard every day in practice, and it’s not just practice, it’s weight room, it’s pre-game, it’s everything. They’ve got all the focus, not just in the gym, but in the classroom too. They’re doing whatever it takes to make sure they stay on the floor and represent our school.”
Senior outside Corey Chavers is the go-to guy. The 6-foot-4 outside from Downey, Calif., carries a significant load, delivering 230 kills in 492 attempts while hitting .350. He has 276 points, nearly twice that of his nearest teammate.
“Corey is our best outside hitter, he’s our go-to guy,” Boehle said. “Without Corey, we aren’t going far. He hits the high ball, he gets 20+ kills each game, he’s a big factor for our team.”
Chavers has been the Big West player of the week three times this year, most recently February 18.
“Last year people ganged up on him and he’s learned how to deal with that now. He’s a handful even if he has three blockers in his face,” McLaughlin said.
“Corey’s our leader, he’s our other captain, he’s matured each year, and right now he’s become one of the best players in the country. He’s going to have a great career.”
Boehle, a product of Westchester, Calif., is part of the third generation of volleyball Boehles. Hayden’s father Michael coaches the standout Loyola HS program where Hayden played.
“Hayden is our captain,” McLaughlin said. “He’s our floor captain, he is calling the shots out there, he knows what every server is going to serve, he’s kind of our scouting report on the floor, and he’s just our guy. The whole family are volleyball people, and Hayden’s a stud, he’s our leader.
Boehle, named Big West defensive player of the week for January 7, leads UCSB with 141 digs, 2.31/set.
“He’s pretty intense at practice,” Chavers said. “He doesn’t have an off day. That means a lot, so we always look to him to be our lighthouse. We always find the way back. “
UCSB’s other outside is 6-2 freshman Ryan Wilcox from famed Punahou high school in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Wilcox has contributed 122 kills in 301 attempts, is hitting .252, and has seven assists, 13 aces, 72 digs, and nine blocks.
“Ryan Wilcox is just a great all-around volleyball player like you get from Hawai’i a lot of the time,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a great passer, great defender, you saw how many balls he came up with in the back row, he’s got a really good arm, so his serve is a handful, and you can set him really fast on the pins.”
Spencer Fredrick, a 6-3 junior, is the Gaucho’s opposite. Fredrick has 24 kills, four aces, 27 digs and 12 blocks.
“Spencer has matured a ton,” McLaughlin said. “First two years, he’s kind of finding his way, and now he understands the game, understands what to look for, he’s just a different player.”
The Gauchos also have a very physical opposite in freshman Haotian Xia, a 6-5 lefty from Beijing, China.
“He’s an incredibly talented athlete, he’s learning our style of volleyball, he’s going to be out there more,” McLaughlin said. “He’s a phenomenal player and he wants to be really good, so it’s just a matter of time before it clicks for him.”
Junior Keenan Sanders was moved back into the middle this year. Sanders, from San Diego, is hitting a phenomenal .536 with 90 kills, three assists, six aces, and 22 blocks.
“Keenan Sanders is such a good athlete, and we didn’t have an opposite last year that we could count on, so Keenan was moved to the right, which really wasn’t his position,” the coach said.
“You can see that he’s just 10 times more comfortable back in the middle where he should be. He’s one of the better middles in the country. He’s a physical guy.”
UCSB’s other middle is 6-4 freshman Brandon Hicks. Hicks was the Big West freshman of the week for February 11. The product of Corona del Mar has 63 kills, is hitting .432, and has eight aces, 12 digs and 27 blocks.
“Brandon Hicks is a freshman who’s just a volleyball rat. He’s in our gym almost every hour of the day. He’s always asking us to get the balls, and get in the gym, and he just goes in there by himself, and the guy just never says die. He’s a competitor, and that’s how he got out there as a freshman.”
UCSB is in the enviable position of having two setters, Casey McGarry and Randy Deweese. McGarry, a 6-0 junior also from Loyola, has directed the Gauchos’ offense for 47 sets, dishing out 256 assists as well as 45 digs, 12 aces, and five blocks.
Deweese is a 6-6 junior from Sacramento, Calif., playing in 48 sets, contributing 321 assists, 24 kills for a .486 percentage, 13 aces, 6 digs and 15 blocks. Deweese is coming off a concussion and missed the Gauchos’ last match in San Diego.
McLaughlin enjoys having options.
“They’ve both switched off all year, Randy has probably set a little bit more, what Randy gives us is that he’s a big guy, he’s a force at the net, he gives our passers a little bit of a bigger window to save some balls that might be going over, but Casey is a pure setter. They both have their strengths. It’s a good situation for us, we have a competitive gym.”