If any teams in the Big West hoped to take the UCSB softball team lightly this season, they were in for a big surprise.
After last year’s campaign where the 2001 Gauchos (18-34 overall and 4-17 in the Big West) finished at the bottom of the barrel in the Big West, things were looking bleak for softball in Santa Barbara.
“Last year we were counting down the days until the season was over,” junior outfielder Natalie Adame said. “We couldn’t wait for it to be done.”
Then everything changed.
Former Truman State Head Coach Kristy Schroeder replaced former UCSB Head Coach Liz Kelley following her resignation last year. Also joining the new Gaucho staff was former Washington three time All-American Becky Newbry and UCSB standout Alysia Hendricks.
These three brought more than just their new faces to Santa Barbara’s team. They also brought a new attitude and a renewed vigor that spread through all of the Gaucho players and came to define the UCSB squad.
“They are awesome coaches,” junior pitcher Sylvia Santos said. “They are so enthusiastic and so positive. We absolutely fed off them this year.”
Schroeder, who was named the Big West Co-Coach of the Year, couldn’t have mapped out a better beginning for her debut at the Gaucho helm. UCSB went 4-1 on its way to capturing the crown of its own Early Bird Invitational to start off the season.
But then the tides turned on the Gauchos. The wins didn’t come as easily as the opening weekend and UCSB struggled to find an offensive flow.
“Both in practice and in games we just tried to focus on the little things to be successful,” Adame said.
Santa Barbara competed against some of the top schools in the nation including Stanford, San Diego State, Michigan and Fresno State in preparation for conference play. Though they did not always come out victorious, Santa Barbara often gave these ball clubs a run for their money.
Even though they knew they would be playing against elite competition with two Big West opponents – Fullerton and Pacific – in the top 25, the Gouchos had high hopes going into Big West play.
“Our team goal was to place in the top three in conference,” Santos said.
Santa Barbara continually welcomed challenges and never backed down to anyone. In the series against Big West Champion and No. 9 Fullerton, the Gauchos put up an unexpected fight as two of the three games were decided by a single run.
Santa Barbara had a legitimate chance to pull off a third-place finish heading into the final weekend of play at Sacramento State.
Even though Santa Barbara was unable to nail the three spot, the Gauchos had one of the most dramatic turn-around seasons of any collegiate athletic team in the country after finishing last in conference the year before.
“We are definitely proud of what we accomplished this year,” Santos said.
In addition to Schroeder’s Big West Co-Coach of the Year honor, the rest of the UCSB squad cleaned up the list of accolades.
Senior shortstop Julia Tamai was awarded a spot on the Big West First Team for her stellar play in anchoring the Gaucho defense. Tamai also hit a club best .307, knocking 58 hits, which is the second highest hit total in Santa Barbara’s history.
Junior catcher Jami Trinidad made the Big West Second Team, raking up 37 RBIs on the season, one short of a Santa Barbara record. She also had the seventh best on-base percentage in the Big West (.418), while collecting a conference-tops 36 walks.
Junior pitcher Loren Thornburg and sophomore outfielder Leslie Simien were selected Big West Honorable Mention for their dynamite play on the diamond. Thornburg struck out 184 batters on the season, second best in the Big West. Simien had a record-breaking season of her own, stealing a remarkable 39 bases to set new Santa Barbara and Big West records.
Unfortunately for Santa Barbara, there’s going to be a giant hole in the middle of next year’s infield. In addition to losing Tamai to graduation, UCSB will lose its starting second baseman and two-year captain, Kim Sawyer; and senior catcher Stacy Bolton also finishes her eligibility with UCSB at this year’s end.
“Our three seniors played huge roles this year,” Santos said. “They all added to the dynamic of the team. We will definitely miss them next year.”
Even with the departure of the three seniors, the Gauchos have plenty of weapons for next year’s attack.
But next year, everybody in the Big West will know that Santa Barbara should not be taken lightly.