With a limited number of matches to gain national rankings, every game matters. The Slugs needed to win to maintain their spot as the number six ranked team in the nation. Despite the bass bumping dance music, smiling faces and an appearance from Sammy the Slug, the men’s volleyball team knew the opening season game was high stakes.

Within the first set of the Jan. 14 game, the team showed they were ready to deliver on high expectations. Their opponent, Vassar College, had the first serve but UC Santa Cruz set the tone of the game with a successful kill — a point scored without error — by Gino Gamboa. Justin Fortner, Lake Merchen, Jake Howard and Raymond Cascio followed up with a combined total of 15 kills.

“Everything was working out, we were working out really well as a team,” said sophomore middle blocker Raymond Cascio.

The Slug’s momentum continued in the second set with the Slugs scoring four points within the first four plays — prompting Vassar to call the first time-out of the game. Vassar returned by closing the gap to a two-point deficit, but were unsuccessful in changing the course of the game as the Slugs answered with another 14 kills.

“We’ve been working for months on our own system and then we spent the last week adjusting to the system we were going to play against today, which was the Vassar offense,” said junior setter Ryan McLaughlin. “We had a scheme for everything they were doing and we felt really well prepared.”

After calling a second timeout in the second set, Vassar’s offense ground to a halt, scoring only one point that didn’t result from a block or service error by UCSC. The Slugs finished the second set with a score of 25-13.

The team credited their ongoing momentum to hard practice, scouting and a seasoned roster.

“We might be a little smaller than usual, but we’re brothers out there,” said outside hitter Gino Gamboa. “Everyone on the team can perform. We have depth and we’re confident that if one of us is having an off day, someone can come in and […] do well.”

As the third set began, Slugs quickly jumped to a 24-14 lead, thanks to impressive offensive numbers put up by outside hitters Jake Howard and Lake Merchen, supported by a strong setting performance from Ryan McLaughlin.

With just one point left until victory, the excited crowd stood in anticipation for the final point to mark the end of an impressive three-match performance. They were left standing for longer than expected as Vassar managed two service aces alongside three attack errors by UCSC Slugs.

“Toward the end it was just getting a little too comfortable with the lead and with how things were going our way, and all of a sudden they were the ones that turned around the service pressure and we […] had to answer,” said head coach Paul Leon.

Despite the late five point run from Vassar, UCSC finally closed the match after a service error by Vassar, finishing the season opener with a 3-0 win. While the team was dissatisfied with the lapse in focus during the game’s final moments, they hope the overall performance will be enough to maintain, or even improve, their sixth place national ranking.

Slugs welcome the  upcoming challenges, acknowledging they need wins in these tough matches to earn a spot in the national championships. Though they won against Vassar, their game against State University of New York (SUNY) at New Paltz only days later proved that making it to nationals isn’t an easy task.

UCSC won two of out of five sets, but ultimately fell short in an incredibly close game. In an intense back and forth, the Slugs continually gained momentum before losing it again in the next set. The team  even won the fourth set 25-14, but the impressive performance wasn’t enough and the Slugs lost 3-2.

The loss to SUNY New Paltz was a reminder that the Slugs will have anything but an easy road ahead of them this season.

UCSC is one of just three DIII men’s volleyball teams on the west coast. With a competitive record, they struggle to find local DI and DII teams to challenge them, forcing them to create a shorter, more competitive schedule with longer distance travels, like upcoming tournaments in New Jersey and Arizona.

“It can only go up from here,” said senior outside hitter Gino Gamboa. “As a team we can still clean up a couple of things here and there, but it’s the beginning of the season. I like how we started.”