STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — All season long, UC Santa Barbara coach Rick McLaughlin told his players they could be national champions.
Even when the Gauchos were picked eighth in a preseason poll. Even when they lost four of their final five regular-season matches to enter their conference tournament at 14-14.
Now, after upsetting top-ranked and No. 1 seed Southern California in back-to-back matches, the fourth-seeded Gauchos (18-14) are one win away from fulfilling McLaughlin’s prophecy and capturing an improbable NCAA men’s volleyball title.
Only Ohio State (25-6) stands in the way, on Saturday night at Penn State’s Rec Hall, in a match between two schools seeking their first men’s volleyball championship.
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“We had our highs and our lows,” UCSB senior Scott Slaughter said. “But we figured as long as we keep going at it, eventually something is going to click, and it will pay off in the end.”
Winless in two previous NCAA finals appearances, the Buckeyes advanced after pulling off a mild upset of their own in beating the second-seeded Nittany Lions in four sets Thursday night.
Both the Buckeyes and Gauchos are embracing underdog mentalities.
“I like being an underdog,” Slaughter said. “I’ve always been one throughout every sport I’ve played. It makes it that much more sweet when you win.”
Ohio State is 0-7 all-time against UCSB, which hasn’t been to the national final since 1988. The Gauchos are 5-0 in NCAA semifinals but 0-4 in the title match.
Buckeyes coach Pete Hanson made a polite request to McLaughlin after running into him in the hallway at Rec Hall shortly after Ohio State’s semifinal victory.
“I asked him to leave a couple guys at the hotel on Saturday. Maybe that would even the odds for us,” Hanson recalled with a laugh. “He wasn’t going for that.”
Preseason favorite USC was ranked No. 1 all year and beat UCSB twice in the regular season, but the momentum turned in the postseason after the Gauchos reached the conference tournament finals and defeated the Trojans to earn an automatic NCAA berth.
Then in the NCAA semifinals, UCSB defeated the top-seeded Trojans again in four sets.
“At some point in time, maybe, if you bring enough pressure to the other team, then maybe Santa Barbara’s magic will wear off and they can’t sustain that kind of magic for enough time,” Hanson said. “That’s the beauty of athletics.”
McLaughlin doesn’t expect to have any problems keeping his team calm and focused after an already exhausting postseason.
“These guys are veterans,” he said. “They’ve been through a lot, and they know what they’re doing. My job is real easy there.”