Midterms are still a few weeks away, but the UCSB men’s volleyball team has its first big test this weekend.

The Gauchos begin their 2003 campaign this weekend, hosting the 39th Annual UCSB/Elephant Bar Collegiate Invitational on Jan. 10-11. Matches will be played in the Thunderdome and Robertson Gym starting at 7 p.m. on Friday. Santa Barbara is seeded sixth in the invitational and will play #3 seed Pacific in its first match in Rob Gym.

The invite provides the Gauchos with an opportunity to showcase their new talent after coming off of an 18-win 2002 season, one of the most successful in school history.

“Our goal last year was to make the playoffs, and we did that,” sophomore libero Aaron Mansfield said. “We upset UCLA in the [Mountain Pacific Sports Federation] and we could have beat Hawaii, which ended up winning the national championship.”

Losing four seniors to graduation, UCSB enters the season with an apparent lack of experience, but loads of potential. The squad has had time to gel, winning an exhibition match in early November against Team Canada Masters.

“We are really inexperienced,” UCSB Head Coach Ken Preston said. “We lost a lot of people to graduation, four players who really contributed.”

The team did return numerous key players. Sophomore middle blocker Michael Kennedy, Mansfield, sophomore outside hitter Nathan Wack, junior middle blocker Justin Adams and senior outside hitter Jan Carlo Zegarra all return from last year’s bunch, which lost to eventual national champion Hawaii in the MPSF semifinals.

Adams, arguably the Gauchos’ most talented asset, finished MPSF Conference play tied for fourth in hitting percentage at .454 and third in blocking average at 1.48 blocks per game in 2002.

But Santa Barbara enters the year needing to find new players for three positions, with four true freshman setters competing for spots. Despite the younger Gaucho team, Preston was quick to say Santa Barbara is not in rebuilding mode.

“I don’t want to say we are rebuilding but it’s a building year,” Preston said. “We need to work on our ball control and passing and we don’t dig exceptionally well, but we have a lot of potential.”

The team has improved since the early fall, but still has things to work on leading up to the match against the Tigers.

“We’re not as physically talented as last year, but the young guys have stepped up a lot in the preseason,” Mansfield said. “We are a taller team and have more offensive weapons. At the beginning of the year, the guys were more focused on personal goals and trying to impress the coaches. Now we have become more team-oriented.”

This weekend will provide a good test for the Gauchos, as seven teams join them in the invite. UCLA is the top-ranked team in the tournament, followed by Stanford, UOP, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge, Irvine and USC. The Gauchos ended UCLA’s season last year in the MPSF quarterfinals, and the Bruins will be looking for revenge on Santa Barbara’s home court. There will be 12 matches in all, with matches continuing at 10 a.m. on Saturday and concluding at 7 p.m.

“The teams [in the invitational] are awesome,” Mansfield said. “Of the top 12 teams, probably eight of them will be in this tournament.”