The UC Santa Barbara men’s volleyball team has been knocking on the door to the NCAA Tournament the past few years.

And that knocking is becoming more insistent, with an experienced roster that starts five seniors.

The Gauchos are 13-2 and have been a solid No. 3 all season in the AVCA Men’s Division I-II Coaches Poll. Interestingly, they have yet to play a Big West match, but have won seven in a row after beating visiting No. 12 UCLA of the MPSF on Tuesday. 

All that changes Friday when UCSB opens Big West play by playing host to No. 6 UC San Diego in a match that could go a long way in deciding both teams’ postseason fate.

Last year, the Gauchos went 18-10, but lost in the Big West Conference tournament semifinals to eventual national champion Long Beach State. And then they were left wanting when the NCAA field was announced, sitting home again with no at-large bid coming their way.

For that matter, as well as it’s done, UCSB hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2011, when it made a late-season run to win the MPSF, ultimately losing in five sets in the national-title match to Ohio State.

This season, UCSB has beaten six ranked teams, Stanford, Ohio State, Penn State, Pepperdine, and UCLA, losing only in back-to-back matches at No. 2 BYU. On January 31, BYU won in four and then the next night, UCSB had match point in the fourth set before losing 23-25, 25-22, 20-25, 28-26, 15-11.

“We were really close with BYU,” UCSB coach Rick McLaughlin said. “Just a few plays here and there. Serving in on match point, that was a big one. We can’t be the team that makes errors. Those guys are big, physical teams, a lot of foreign guys that have played a lot of foreign volleyball.

“The good thing is that our guys know exactly what they need to do to win, and I hope and pray that we play BYU again, because I know our guys would love it. They’d be ready.”

To do so, UCSB will have to either win the Big West or get the lone NCAA at-large bid. There are five leagues that get automatic bids, the Big West, MPSF, MIVA, EIVA and Conference Carolinas. Currently, the Big West favorite is No. 1 Hawai’i, 14-1 and also waiting to open league play.

Few teams, however, have the overall experience that McLaughlin’s team does. 

“It’s probably the most fun that I’ve had with the team in a long time,” McLaughlin said. “Just a great team to coach.” 

No wonder, since he starts five seniors in setter Casey McGarry, outside Roy McFarland, middle Keenan Sanders, outside Randy DeWeese, and libero Grady Yould.

The 6-foot-6 DeWeese, a product of Sacramento, shared the setting with McGarry last year.  Now on the outside, he leads the team in kills with 192 (3.69/set), is hitting .284, leads in aces with 22, is third in digs with 96, and is third with 47 blocks, seven solo.

DeWeese, the Big West player of the week the past two weeks, was surprised to make the switch. 

“I’m learning as I go,” he admitted. “I still have so much to learn. Some days are frustrating when I don’t know that something’s wrong with my technique, or I’m not hitting the ball super-hard, or well, but it feels good because we have a veteran cast that can always help me out.” 

McLaughlin agreed.

“Randy’s continuing to learn, but he’s getting very good,” the coach said. “He’s got an incredible arm, and Casey, and all these other guys on the floor that are all great ball-control guys, it’s hard to hit the ground on our team right now.”

McGarry sees DeWeese’s athleticism every day in the gym.

“Randy just moved to hitting, which we knew he knew how to do his whole career, but for him to switch positions and crush it like he is, is pretty unbelievable,” McGarry said.

UCSB mens volleyball 3/6/2020-Casey McGarry
Casey McGarry has UCSB reaching for the NCAA tournament/Ed Chan,

McLaughlin said that McGarry, a 6-footer from Loyola High School in Manhattan Beach, is the best setter in the nation this year.

“In my opinion, he doesn’t get enough credit,” McLaughlin said. “He’s the best setter in the country, I got no problems saying that, and he runs the show. He has our offense clicking and going fast, has everyone on the same page, he’s been really good.”

McGarry has 557 assists (10.71/set), 11 aces, leads the team by far with 133 digs, and has 20 blocks, one solo. He also has 25 kills, almost a half per set

DeWeese is glad not to compete with McGarry for a setting spot any longer.

“He’s been my competition for three years, but now he’s my setter,” DeWeese said. “We’ve always had this connection to where we’ve supported each other when one of us was off, and we still have the chemistry to do well. 

“I know how good he is, because I’ve competed with him for three years. It’s easy to trust him.”

Yould is a first-year starter after backing up Hayden Boehle last year. The product of Dana Hills, Calif., Yould has 99 digs and is there to bail out McGarry when needed. He has 38 assists.

“He digs a ton of balls, he knows the other team’s servers well, directs traffic out there for us, and knows what’s coming,” McLaughlin said. “He’s been awesome. He’s had to fill in for Hayden Boehle, who’s one of the best that we’ve ever had, and he’s doing it. He’s matching him every step of the way.”

DeWeese sees Gould’s impact as a team leader.

“Grady’s always level-headed. In games, even in tough games, he knows what we need to win, he’s always telling us how to get better, what he sees on the court,” DeWeese said. “Usually the liberos don’t do much, but he has a big impact on our game plan, and everything we do.”

The 6-4 McFarland, from famed Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, competes big for the Gauchos. 

“Roy’s passing has been super-good, so we’ve been running fast sets to him,” McGarry said, “and that’s really been screwing other teams over.”

McFarland has 117 kills (2.54/set), is hitting .266, and had 72 digs and 26 blocks.

“He’s our captain. He’s the leader of our team,” McLaughlin said. “He’s one of the smartest volleyball players I’ve ever coached. He’s just a die-hard. Volleyball is everything to him. He gets our team going on the scouting report, reminds us out there of every little thing. He leads the way for our team.”

McFarland, DeWeese said, has “always been under-sized, but very competitive. Even in the little drills in practice, he needs to win everything. He puts it on everyone else to be, ‘No, I want to win,’ and he gets the fire and competitiveness going. 

“Even if it’s just a pepper competition. It’s kind of contagious.”

The 6-6 Sanders is from San Diego.

“Keenan is probably one of the best middles in the country,” McLaughlin said. “Offensively he’s a beast. I hope they’re looking at him for the national team.”

Sanders, who leads with 53 blocks, two solo, is hitting .542 and has 107 kills (2.06/set).

“Keenan is an absolute freak,” McGarry said. “He is so athletic, so quick side-to-side, and he hits the crap out of the ball. He’s been doing really well for us.”

Sophomore Ryan Wilcox, a 6-2 outside, comes from renowned Punahou HS in Honolulu, Hawai’i, where he was a two-time state player of the year. He received AVCA Newcomer of the Year accolades in 2019. This year Wilcox has 111 kills (2.36/set) while hitting .291. He has 64 digs, 12 aces and 24 blocks.

“Ryan had an incredible year last year,” McLaughlin said. “He’s everything we thought he would be when we recruited him. He’s a stud passing, serving, everything. The interesting thing is that Roy and Ryan are small, but they’re doing the job blocking.”

Brandon Hicks is the other middle. The undersized 6-3 sophomore from Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, has 77 kills, is hitting .459, and has 11 aces and 49 blocks, four solo.

“Hicks is by far the biggest gym rat we have. He’s a competitive, die-hard volleyball player, he’s thinking volleyball every minute of the day,” McLaughlin said. 

“That’s why he’s in there. He will out-compete anyone we have on our team, he doesn’t care that he’s a 6-3 middle, he just goes out there and does his thing.”

He’s emblematic of the team.

“The biggest thing for us, since we’re a little smaller, we have to pass and serve really well,” McGarry said. “If we’re passing and serving at our best, we can beat any team. Just getting as many reps as we can as a team, that chemistry is almost perfect, I think we can do it.”

McLaughlin agreed.

“Our team has a lot of good, smaller volleyball players. We can’t afford to give away freebies. We have to make sure that they earn every single point, and that’s the motto of our team: Make the other team earn it. And when you get to those matches against those two teams, you’ve got to do that and serve really well. 

“If we don’t knock them off the net a little bit, they’ll have some horses to set that might overmatch us.”

Ultimately, it could come down to experience.

“With these guys, there’s not a lot of highs and lows,” McLaughlin said. “They’re pretty steady. We started off a couple games not the way we wanted to, there was no panic and we knew that we were going to chip away and come back. 

“That’s all experience. These guys have been through it, they’ve been that younger team that has a lot of talent and is finding their way. They’ve paid their dues. We have a lot of seniors leading the way.”

Randy DeWeese-UCSB mens volleyball 3/6/2020
UCSB senior Randy DeWeese serves against USC/Ed Chan,

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