The UCSB baseball team kicks off the 2001 season this Friday, squaring off against College World Series participant San Jose State in a three-game series. With nine starters returning from last year’s club, Santa Barbara is looking to improve its third-place conference finish.

Moving up will not be easy because the Big West promises to be deep-set with talent, led by perennial powers Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. Both teams are nationally ranked; Fullerton represents the Big West with a #12 ranking.

Nevertheless, UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema expects this team to be a contender and said making it to the College World Series this season is a realistic goal.

“I think that we have as much talent and ability on this team as we’ve had in a long time,” Brontsema said.

Included among the nine returning starters for UCSB are three senior All-Conference athletes: third baseman Dave Molidor, shortstop Jeff Bannon and second baseman Chad Peshke. The Gauchos must get repeat performances from all three players in order to make a run for the conference championship. Molidor thinks that the team is more than up to the daunting task of upsetting the Titans and the 49ers.

“Years before I felt that Long Beach and Fullerton had more talent than us, but this year I feel that we’re right up there with them,” Molidor said. “[This season] we’re healthy, and our goal is to win the conference title.”

Santa Barbara pitching took the hardest hit in the offseason by losing eight hurlers. Yet Brontsema does not expect any serious drop-off. UCSB has brought in seven new pitchers, with returning senior starter Ryan Ogle expected to be the ace of the staff.

“I think that with the addition of [junior] James Garcia and with Ryan Ogle healthy we have the pitching,” Peshke said.

In addition to Molidor, Bannon and Peshke, the Gaucho roster features many juniors and seniors, giving this team the added dimension of being focused on the team goals. UCSB was picked to finish third in a poll of the conference, and that only adds fuel to the fire, according to Peshke.

“It gives you more motivation,” Peshke said. “But you expect that with Long Beach and Fullerton, they’re the traditional powerhouses of the conference.”

Even though the team is preparing for its first road trip of the season, Brontsema was quick to stress the importance of every series.

“It’s only an 18-game conference schedule, so you have to do well every weekend,” he said. We’re going to have to start with making it to regionals, but we do have the ability to make it to the College World Series, and that is our goal.”