Flashy swingers who step up to the plate to either strike out or score big in front of a roaring crowd of beer-swilling spectators normally conjures dim memories on D.P. However, today the swingers and the hurlers belong to the UCSB baseball team.
The Gauchos look to build off last year’s banner season and return to the NCAA Tournament after arguably their greatest season ever. Santa Barbara tees off their season against Loyola Marymont today at 2 p.m. at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
Although UCSB lost several players from the 2001 squad to graduation and the MLB draft, a nucleus of returning all-American candidates and a wave of newcomers give the team a chance to duplicate if not surpass last year’s performance. UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema believes the new-look Gauchos could retain a familiar feel.
“We want to use last year’s success as a springboard,” Brontsema said. “We know how much effort it takes to realize our goal of a championship.”
In order for UCSB to succeed, it has one glaring obstacle to overcome: inexperience. The Gauchos have 18 new players contending for seven vacant positions, including an infield that will be all green. Nonetheless, Brontsema anticipates a steep learning curve for his young team.
“We have veterans who know what it takes to compete on a D-1 level,” Brontsema said. “If they lead by example, then by the time we get to conference, we’ll be playing our best ball.”
Among the experienced leaders is the returning right-handed pitching duo of senior James Garcia and sophomore Matt Vasquez.
Right-handed junior transfer James Dayley bolsters the rotation with Garcia, a third team all-American last year, and Vasquez, a freshman all-American selection.
“If Dayley has the kind of season we know he can, we’ll be tough to beat on any given weekend,” Garcia said. “We’re not going to lose many series.”
“Pitching will hold this team and defense will win the games,” Vasquez said.
The success of the team lies on the arms of the Gaucho pitching staff on an inexperienced team. Talented freshman Eric Posthumus figures to vie for the fourth spot in the rotation with junior Jeremy Sugarman, while senior Matt Moran will likely fill the closer’s role.
“Pitching is definitely the strength of this team,” Brontsema said. “No one is going to out-compete Garcia. If Dayley is on, then we’ll have the luxury of having Vasquez as one of the best arms to start on Saturdays.”
Brontsema emphasized defense behind the pitching in selecting an infield in which all five positions will be up for grabs.
Freshman second baseman Chris Malec may be the biggest surprise. Malec displays the potential to be an impact player in his first year. Catcher will come down to a gametime decision between sophomore Chad Ziemendorf, junior Nic Rodriquez and sophomore Taylor Vogt.
First base is pretty well wrapped up for junior Josh McCanne, a solid defender with a lively bat, while shortstop will be a year long battle between junior Josh Fulton and senior Dave Licht. At third, Nate Sutton is expected to have a tremendous season.
The strength of the defense will come from an outfield of potential all-Americans. Junior Ryan Spilborghs roams right field. Spilly leads all Gaucho returners in every offensive category. He compiled an amazing school-record 35-game hitting streak.
“Spilborghs is a special player, one of the better college players around,” Brontsema said. “I can see him playing center some day in the Bigs.”
Senior returner Andy Campanella center will anchor center. Campanella is leader with superior all-around skills. Senior R.J. Smith will most likely loom in left. Junior Kevin Miller is expected to contribute at DH.
“We won’t be the same offensive power we were a year ago,” said Garcia, today’s starter. “But don’t let that fool you. We won’t beat teams 15-3, but we’ll beat them 5-3.”