It’s sink or swim time for the UCSB swimming program.

The UCSB men’s and women’s swim team will be defending both of its conference titles, when it begins competition today, at the three day long 2002 Big West Conference Swimming Championships, held at the Belmont Plaza, in Long Beach.

“We are very exited to swim, and to prove we are the best,” UCSB Head Coach Gregg Wilson said.

After years of dominating the Big West waters, UCSB is a legitimate contender to the Pacific title. Santa Barbara’s men and their 23 consecutive Big West titles will receive perhaps their toughest competition ever at the Big West Finals.

“UOP soundly defeated us earlier this season, so we know what they can do,” Wilson said.

The Tigers swept the Gauchos when the two teams squared off less than a month ago in Stockton. However, UCSB has regrouped and doubled its efforts to ensure it will take home both the men’s and women’s titles.

“The last three weeks of practice have been very good. We are peaking as a team emotionally, mentally, and physically,” Wilson said.

With UOP presenting a real threat, both Gaucho teams will need top performances from their ace swimmers in order to win.

The women will look for a pair of juniors and a trio of freshmen to lead them to their second consecutive Big West title. Junior Julia King will lead the Gauchos in the sprint events. The Lookout Mountain, Colo. native has notched the fastest times for the Gauchos in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. The other junior, Romina Mosquera, will be called on to head the middle distance events for the Gauchos. The Irvine native was the 2001 Big West Champion in the 1650 free but will most likely see action in the 200- and 500-yard free this year.

The trio of freshmen, Emily Murad, Pam Wong and Lindsay Dalonzo, will not let their youth get in the way of helping Santa Barbara to another championship. Murad has posted the fastest 1000-yard and 1650-yard free times for the Gauchos. Wong, a native of South Pasadena, will be the top UCSB swimmer in the breaststroke events. Lastly, Dalonzo, a 2001 Olympic trials qualifier and two-time Big West Swimmer Of The Week, will be the Gauchos’ best opportunity to get a first place swim and will be competing in the backstroke events.

If the men are to take home their 24th straight Big West Title they will count on several athletes to come up with their best swims of the year. In the sprint events, the three-headed-monster, freshman Eric Lee Jr., senior Seth Derrick and junior Anders Nelson will look to land the Gauchos points in the 50 and 100 free. Senior co-captain and 2000 Olympic Trials Qualifier Kevin Herlihy will be Santa Barbara’s best bet in the 200 and 500 free. Senior Ethan Hall, an All-American at North Carolina as a freshman, will lead the breaststrokers and sophomore Shaun Crossman will be the favorite in the butterfly events.

Lastly, UCSB will need huge swims from junior Matt Wheeler and sophomore Eric Koch, if it is to keep Pacific in its rear-view mirror. Wheeler, the 2000 and 2001 Big West Swimmer Of The Year has overcome a slow start this year but is peaking late in the season, cutting seconds off his times in the 200-and 400-yard medley in his last couple of swims. Koch, the reigning Big West Champion in the 1000 and 1650 free will look to defend his titles.