Coach Rick McLaughlin and his UC Santa Barbara team main goal entering this season was to make the MPSF Tournament — it was a lofty goal given the program’s recent history.
The No. 6 Gauchos had missed the eight-team conference tournament for the last five years — the third longest active streak in the MPSF. With six conference matches remaining, though, UC Santa Barbara (11-8, 9-7 MPSF) is in sixth place in the MPSF and poised to qualify for its first postseason tournament since 2006.
In addition, UC Santa Barbara has been ranked as high as No. 3 this season. It is also the only team in the nation to have two players, Jeff Menzel and Cullen Irons, ranked in the nation’s top 20 for kills per game average.
Off the Block conducted an interview with McLaughlin earlier this week to discuss the chances of UC Santa Barbara making the postseason and possibility of making a run deep in the conference tournament.
Off the block: Coach, we have roughly reached the midway point of this season. What are your thoughts on how your team has preformed so far?
Rick McLaughlin: I think we are doing OK. We’re at where we want to be right now. We’ve had wins that we have been excited about and some matches that we probably should have won. I think everyone is in this area, with the exception of USC. I’m happy with how this team has trained and is pursing their goal of getting in the playoffs. That was our main goal at the start of this season. We want to get into the playoffs, and then we’ll set a new goal after that. The first goal, though, is to get into playoffs and right now we are in a good spot.
OTB: Right now UC Santa Barbara is in sixth place in the MPSF. Your team has not made the MPSF Tournament in five years. How important is it for the program to make the tournament?
RM: It’s a huge step. This is the third year that associate head coach Lee Nelson and myself have been here, and it is important to make progress each year. As fast as you can, you want to establish yourself as a top program that recruits look at. We now are getting looks from top recruits, and this is where we want to be.
OTB: Has the rebuilding process taken as long as you originally thought?
RM: I was looking at it taking about two to three years to get into the playoffs. I liked the guys [my predecessor] coach [Ken] Preston recruited. They were all just young. I knew it would take a few years for them to get use to my training. We came close last year. We finished one match out, and had a chance if we won our last match to get in.
OTB: Both Jeff Menzel and Cullen Irons are in the nation’s top 20 in kills per game average. What has made those two such a successful combination for your offense this season?
RM: I think the main reason for our success is the whole group of seniors. We have eight seniors on this team. They dedicated themselves after missing the playoffs by one game last year, and they know they have one year left to do it and they push each other. Jeff and Cullen get a lot of sets and our setters work hard. Andy McGuire is the best libero in the country. He is our senior captain and that guy runs our team. Our other outside hitter Trey Valbuena is doing a fantastic job at passing the ball and is doing all the things we need him to do. It’s a total group effort. Jeff and Cullen have had tremendous years, but it’s all the guys together. Our middle Scott Slaughter has also been outstanding and provides leadership in the middle.
OTB: Do you think our team has surprised anyone with the way played this season?
RM: I don’t think we have. We were really competitive last year and played 11 five-set matches. We won three of them and competed hard with every team last year. We even beat two of the teams that made it to the Final Four. We were knocking on the door last year, and they know we are knocking on the door again. I doubt we have surprised anyone.
OTB: Is this team capable of making a run deep in the conference tournament?
RM: I honestly believe that, and I know we still have a long way to go to improve those chances. I don’t think any team is comfortable at where they are right now. I know every team knows they can improve. We have a good amount of talent and desire to make a run. It’s so close in our league. USC is notch ahead of everyone right now and has done a great job. We have bunch of seniors and juniors on this team, and I really believe everyone in our league can beat anyone on any night if they put it all together. You can look at this season, UC San Diego beat Stanford and then Pacific beat UC San Diego. Pepperdine is not having their best year, but they still beat USC. This league is tight top to bottom and that’s why making the playoff is a huge step.
OTB: Your team has played 16 conference matches, more than any team in the nation. Do you like the fact that you scheduled so many conference matches early and can now see how other teams fare before you play your next MPSF match in a few weeks?
RM: I like the situation we are in. I didn’t particularly schedule it like that, it’s just the way it fell. I like that four out of our last six matches are at home. We have played 16 matches and I think the closest to us is 14. I think we are at a good situation, and I like that we are on our home floor against UC Irvine and Stanford before playing Peperdian and USC to end our season on the road. Our goal is to get into that fourth spot and get to host a playoff match.
OTB: In talking about being at home, your team is in the top half of the MPSF standings but your home attendance this season is the second lowest in the conference. Are people starting to come around to this team or is the buzz around campus still pretty low?
RM: I think they are coming around. For sure winning is going to spur that on, and the more wins you get the more people will come here. It’s part of building a program and a lot of it is winning and making a product worth of fans coming out to support. We are getting bigger and bigger crowds as we keep playing well. The last four home matches I think we are going to have some good crowds.
OTB: Your team plays non-conference matches this weekend against No. 9 Penn State and Lewis. What are your initial thoughts on those two matches?
RM: Well we always play to win. I know a lot about Penn State. I know their coach well, and they have won national championships. That team is always good and you have to be playing at our best. We look forward to that match, and it is always good to play team out of league. The Lewis coach is also doing great job overcoming all of that program’s NCAA sanctions and has them playing great. These are going to be two good challenges. You can’t go in thinking these are lesser opponents. They are good programs.
OTB: So I take it you won’t be making any lineup changes for these non-conference matches?
RM: I want to try to win as much as we can, and I’m sure Penn State and Lewis are the same way. But I will try to play a few more guys that didn’t get to play that often. It’s really hard to that in league play because anyone can beat anyone. The guys that are behind the starters are barely behind them. They train hard and need chances to get in and see action.
OTB: A lot of times these non-conference matches against the MPSF will be the matches that Midwest and East Coast teams circle on their calendar at the start of the year. Does your team consider that going into these matches that while this might just another non-conference match for a West Coast team, it’s one of the other team’s biggest matches of the regular season?
RM: I think it use be that way but no so much any more. Those schools are pretty even with us now. There is a high talent level over there and they are getting good at the high school level. … Penn State year after year is competing for a national championship. Ohio State could be the best team in the country. I don’t think anyone in our league looks at these matches as less of a match. You can’t or you’ll get crush. They too good, and we too much respect for them.
OTB: In looking at your team, you play a couple of non-conference matches and have a bye week before playing your next MPSF match at the end of the month. Do you feel this team can take majority of those final six conference matches?
RM: Our guys want to take six. We want to host a first round match here. I think it is going to be tough to take six. We are playing two of the top teams, but our guys believe they can compete with these teams. We just need to focus on getting one first.
OTB: Have the players always had this confidence that they can play with the best teams or is this something that they have developed this year and last year?
RM: Definitely our confidence level has increased. I think the first year we could compete, but it was not a comfortable feeling for our guys. It was not something our guys were not use to, and we needed more conference matches to get confident. This third year I know they feel they are better than their opponent. That is how it builds and that’s how competitive athletes think about it. The more opportunities you get the soon or later you feel better and feel like you should be the one winning. Age does that. These guys have experience and feel it’s their time.