The UCSB men’s water polo team had a solid season last year, improving from an 11-15 record and a last-place finish in the conference in 2014 to a much more respectable 17-11 overall record and sixth-place finish in the conference. The team finished its season in seventh place after the annual Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) conference championship.

Shane Hauschild passes the ball. Eric Swenson/Daily Nexus

Shane Hauschild passes the ball. Eric Swenson/Daily Nexus

One big change made in the offseason is the switch in conferences as the No. 6 Gauchos are making a transition in conferences as after 20-plus years in the MPSF, they will now be a part of the GCC (Golden Coast Conference). In the inaugural preseason poll, Santa Barbara is expected to finish third in the conference behind No. 7 Long Beach State and No. 4 Pacific

Hoping to build off their success from last year will be tough, however, as this season Santa Barbara will be replacing last year seniors Derek Shoemaker and Chris Whitelegge, players who made big contributions.

Shoemaker, an attacker, was the team’s best goal-scorer, netting 48 shots and making huge clutch shots, including a game-winner with just seconds, left against UCI last season. Whitelegge, on the other hand, was quite possibly the best goalkeeper in UCSB history. After playing his final game as a Gaucho, Whitelegge’s 895 saves were not only the most in school history but second-most in conference history.

While it will be tough replacing the production of those two as well as their leadership, the Gauchos still have star attackers Mitchell Hamilton and Shane Hauschild.

Hamilton, a senior, is one of the quickest guys on the team and set a new career-high in goals (25). A transfer from Cal, Hamilton is not just a scorer, but a defender as well, posting 19 steals and claiming fourth best on the team.

Hauschild, a junior, will also be relied heavily upon as one of the main focal points on the offensive side of the pool. The junior was second on the team in goals (39), assists (17) and overall points (56). Both players started all 28 games last season, and that reliability factor will be huge for the team going forward.

This weekend the Hauschild, Hamilton, and company will open its season at the triton invitational in a doubleheader match against Pomona-Pitzer and No. 15 Air Force.

The Gauchos first match against Pomona-Pitzer will be an interesting one as the two programs will play their first match against one another tomorrow. The Sagehens will look to start its season strong and post the programs’ first winning record since 2008. Last year they finished

The Sagehens will look to start its season strong and post the programs’ first winning record since 2008. Last year they finished 13-16 on the season with a 5-6 conference record and a fifth place finish in the SCIAC championships.

While no one knows what to expect against this new team they’ve never faced, history is certainly on UCSB’s side when it comes to its career record against Air Force which is 29-3 all time in favor of the Gauchos.

Last year, Santa Barbara defeated the Falcons in their season opener 8-7 and again in the Nor Cal Tournament 10-7. Air Force will look to avenge both losses from last season as well as improve from a tough 12-19 finish last year.

Junior Riley Thomas, an honorable mention All-American and first-team all-WWPA selection last season will be a key component as he led the Falcons with 39 goals and was second with 21 assists and 40 steals last season. Senior captain Riley Quinlin will also play a big role as Air Force’s do it all player.

While it is always tough replacing key players, the No. 6 Gauchos certainly retained enough talent to continue building off a successful 2015 campaign. And with a new conference comes a new hope that UCSB can defy odds and take home the inaugural GCC championship.

UCSB begins its 2016 campaign at the Triton Invitational hosted by UC San Diego on Saturday, September 3 at 1:20 p.m. against Pomona-Pitzer. The Gauchos second match is at 5:20 p.m. against No. 15 Air Force.

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