February 6, 2006

2006 Season Preview: Gauchos Look to Do Things Right and Return to Postseason Play

Feb. 6, 2006

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - After a disappointing finish to the 2005 campaign, the UC Santa Barbara softball team is ready to start fresh, contend for the Big West Conference title and return to postseason play in 2006.

After advancing to their first ever NCAA Tournament in 2004, expectations were high for the Gauchos a season ago, but a number of injuries derailed the team and UCSB finished the season 26-22 overall, fifth place in league at 9-12 and failed to return to the Big Dance. So the burning question at the outset of this season is this: "How do the Gauchos turn things around and get back to the postseason?"

Santa Barbara returns nine letterwinners and seven starters from last year's squad, one that was very sound both offensively and defensively, setting a number of records in 2005. With a roster highlighted by All-Big West Second Team selections Jennifer Davis and Brittany Putich, along with honorable mention honoree Kendra Singley, the Gauchos have the nucleus of the team back for the 2006 season. The Gauchos also usher in one of the most talented recruiting classes the program has seen. The new crop of players will have an immediate impact and add the depth that UCSB so desperately needed last season.

Fifth year head coach Kristy Schroeder is very excited about the upcoming campaign and is confident the team will take care of business in 2006. "The most important thing for us this year is that we do things the right way each and every day, so that we give ourselves a chance to win. If we are committed to doing all the little things right, whether it is on or off the field, at practice or in a game, during rehab or conditioning, we will be very good. This team has an excellent chance to be very successful."

Pitching
The Gauchos' pitching staff should once again be very competitive and, coupled with solid offense, give the team the opportunity to win every game. The most notable returner is right-handed ace Jennifer Davis, who anchored the Gaucho staff with 29 appearances, 13 wins and an ERA of 2.09 in 2005. She also led the Big West in strikeouts for the second consecutive year with 197. The junior hurler will be counted on as a leader in the circle, at the plate and in the dugout.

"Jen has the ability and experience to pitch well against and beat the best teams in the nation," Schroeder said. "If she continues to believe in herself, she will do that."

Hardworking freshman Tami Weston (Ventura, Calif./Ventura HS), who is capable of getting great movement and speed on the ball, will step up and fill the number two spot left open by the departure of Lindsey Sommer. The all-time career victory leader at Ventura High School, Weston will be a great addition for Santa Barbara.

Junior transfer Ginger Gutierrez (Ventura, Calif./Ventura College), a crafty left-hander, will be the Gauchos' third starter. A two-time Western States Conference Pitcher of the Year, she has the ability to shut opposing offenses down and get the big strikeout.

"I think we can be really great in the circle this year," Schroeder said. "We have some new talent and we will have much greater depth, which will give us the ability to give teams different looks and move our pitchers in and out more."

Catchers
Perhaps the Gauchos' deepest position in 2006 will be at the catcher spot. Junior Shelby Hensler has been cleared to play and is ready to reclaim her starting spot behind the plate after missing 27 games last season due to injury.

If Hensler, who did not practice at all in the fall, is unable to go, newcomer Ericka Hansen (San Clemente, Calif./San Clemente HS) may be calling the balls and strikes. A First Team All-South Coast League selection at SCHS, Hansen is quick on her feet, vocal and capable of leading the defense from that position. Hensler and Hansen can step in and play other positions in the infield as well, depending on who earns the starting nod at catcher.

"Both Shelby and Ericka are very enthusiastic back there," Schroeder said. "They exude the type of energy that keeps the team focused and ready defensively."

Brenda Lira, who started 22 games last year in Hensler's absence, and freshman Adrienne Anderson (Porterville, Calif./Monache HS) are both very capable and will make strong cases for the starting job, as well.

Infield
Santa Barbara's defense--always a strongpoint on a Schroeder-coached team--will be fundamentally sound again in 2006. The infield, which was the main reason the Gauchos' defense ranked second in the Big West with a .970 fielding percentage in 2005, will look drastically different this season. Replacing Second Team All-Big West slugger Lindsey Herrin at first base will be freshman Tiffany Wright (Corona, Calif./Santiago HS). At 5-10, Wright has a very strong arm and quick hands, along with the ability to provide power at the plate. Another option at first is sophomore Dani Baltazar, a standout from Milikan High School in Long Beach, Calif.

Freshman Christine Ramos (Long Beach, Calif/Lakewood HS) is slated to start at second base. A four-time All-Moore League First Team second baseman at LHS, Ramos will leadoff for the Gauchos, giving them the type of speed at the top of the order they lacked last year. Her ability to get on and steal bases will be a nice compliment to the power hitters batting behind her. Freshman Lauren Augino (West Covina, Calif.), who hit .350 with seven homers and 25 RBI her senior year at West Covina HS, will also compete for time at second.

A familiar face in the Gaucho infield in 2006 will be all-conference shortstop Brittany Putich. The junior, who led the team with 42 hits and 31 runs scored last season, will be asked to step up as a leader to the rest of an infield that is comprised of underclassmen.

"She has been very dedicated in the fall and the early part of this season," Schroeder notes of Putich. "She will be great at short and will pick up our pitchers and bring confidence to our younger players in the infield."

Finally, sophomore newcomer Tisha Duran (Ventura, Calif./Ventura College) will fill the void at third base. Possibly the purest athlete on the team, Duran will be a great defender at the hot corner with quick hands and feet and a strong arm complimenting a solid bat. Sophomore Danielle Meyers, who hit three homers and drove in 15 runs in conference play a year ago, may play at third as well.

Outfield
Defensively, UCSB was tremendous in the outfield last season with the starters combining for a total of only five errors. The good news is that the outfielding corps should be even better in 2006. Junior Jessica Hejna started every game for the Gauchos a year ago and will be a mainstay in left field. Hejna, who led the team with .364 batting average and 24 hits in conference games in 2005, has a very solid glove and will continue to be a leader on the field. "Jessica was our hottest player the second half of last season and she is a true leader on the field," Schroeder stated. "Both her bat and her glove are important to our success."

Shifting from second base to center field will be one of UCSB's most versatile players, junior Kendra Singley. Singley--who led the team with a .302 batting average and posted four homers, 24 RBI and 28 runs in 2005--is not only a threat at the plate, but she has the speed to cover a lot of ground in center and should do great things for the Gauchos in her new position.

A host of players will compete for the final outfield spot in right, including Liz Walters--a starter in center in 2005--Nicole Churnock, and Meyers, all very capable outfielders. Davis, who has a dangerous bat, will play some in right when she is not in the circle.

Offense at a Glance
Offensively, the Gauchos will be quicker than they were last season and Schroeder will look to utilize the team's speed more on the base paths. In addition to the quickness that Ramos brings, Duran, Hansen and Wright can get out and run, and freshman walk-on Jackie Conlin (San Pedro, Calif./San Pedro HS) will also add speed and depth to the roster. Putich and Singley, who stole a combined nine bases last year, are threats to opposing catchers, as well.

"Some of our new kids have great instincts on the base paths," Schroeder said. "I think that once we get on, we will be able to run well and score more runs. We have five new players that will make us a much faster team."

As far as the lineup goes, Santa Barbara should challenge opposing pitchers each and every game. Although a player like Lindsey Herrin, who led the team with 12 homers and 35 RBI in 2005, is difficult to replace, the rest of UCSB's most productive hitters from the squad that hit a school record 36 homeruns last year are back. With the addition of some quality offensive weapons, the Gauchos should have a dangerous lineup one through nine.

"Our returning players have continued to hit the ball well," Schroeder noted. "If we hit consistently, we will have a very strong offense and put a lot of runs on the board. Our lineup is solid all the way down, so we have the ability to make things happen no matter what spot we're at in the lineup."

Coaching Staff
The Gauchos' commitment to become an elite program starts at the very top and two new additions to the coaching staff should pay instant dividends this season. Joining Schroeder are assistant coaches Brie Galicinao and Jessica Mendoza in their first seasons with the program. Galicinao was an All-American at Princeton where she became the first Ivy League player ever to win both Pitcher and Player of the Year in the same season. The individual attention that she will give the Gaucho pitchers will drastically help their development. Mendoza, a current member of Team USA, won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. She will work out with the team and show them what it takes to be successful at the highest levels.

It appears that everything is in order and UC Santa Barbara is going to have an outstanding year, challenge for the Big West crown and make a run at the postseason. As the pieces come together, only time will tell just how good this team will be. One thing is certain: rearmed with a talented pitching staff, a dangerous lineup and much needed depth, the Gauchos are ready to make some noise in 2006.