It’s not quite spring yet, but the smell of baseball is in the air.

The gloves have been slapping and the bats have been cracking at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium since October, but with just 16 days now remaining before the UCSB baseball team opens its 2003 campaign, Head Coach Bob Brontsema is knee-deep in some very important decisions.

“We haven’t got our roster down to the exact number that we need to be at yet,” Brontsema said.

The Gauchos, who have been fielding a practice squad of 36 players since the beginning of fall practice, have just two weeks to slim that roster to 31, leaving five players potentially out of a spot on the team.

Of those 31 roster spots, at least 10 will be filled with new faces. That’s how many freshmen UCSB is expecting to carry, not including two junior college transfers. Still, Brontsema is cautiously optimistic about the chances for Gaucho newcomers to have a positive impact in 2003.

“They could all play vital roles, but you never know how freshmen are going to act,” he said. “It’s the same thing as getting used to the academics here. Some guys walk in and don’t miss a beat. Some guys take a quarter, two quarters, or some guys take a whole year to get adjusted. Same thing goes athletically. It’s one thing to do it right now, but when all of the sudden you’re facing guys with “Trojans” across the chest, it becomes a little different situation.”

Although Brontsema remains guarded about the potential success of his freshmen, he has tabbed freshman Steve Morlock as a finalist for the squad’s final starting pitching spot. The 6’3″ right-hander from Marin Catholic High is the hurler with the tools to pitch immediately, according to Brontsema.

“I’ve just worked hard and played my game and haven’t tried to outdo myself,” Morlock said. “If you work hard, it will pay off, and I’ll hopefully get that spot.”

Freshman right-hander Michael Martin will also compete for the final spot. The Red Bluff, Calif. native has also shown poise and good-enough stuff to challenge for the spot, according to Brontsema.

Six other newcomers will vie for opportunities out of the Gaucho bullpen. Right-handers Brian Tracy and Andy Graham have “great futures,” according to their coach. Darren Pitchford, a 6′ left-hander from Aliso Niguel High, is one of three lefties in the program and will battle junior transfer and fellow southpaw Ivan Ramirez for innings out of the bullpen.

Ramirez, who transferred from Santa Ana College, said he threw well doing fall practices and expects to receive innings out of the bullpen.

“My job is to pretty much just throw strikes and keep doing what got me here,” Ramirez said.

Right-handers Loren Fraser, a junior who played at Santa Barbara City College in 2002, and freshman Justin Segal will also be among those competing for a spot on the roster and eventually for innings in relief.

Behind the plate, redshirt freshman Josh LaGrotta will battle senior Nic Rodriguez and sophomores Taylor Vogt and Chad Ziemendorf for innings. A walk-on in 2002, LaGrotta has battled his way onto the Gaucho team and has impressed Brontsema with his defense and receiving abilities.

Around the horn, 6’3″ left-hander Bill Rowe will compete for playing time at first base.

“Bill has made great strides from the day he got here until now,” Brontsema said. “He’s been a great listener and a great learner and he’s put the things we’ve told him into action. I’m very pleased with what he’s done up to this time and he’s battling to see some time.”

In the outfield, there is a bit of a freshman logjam with Chris Caraballo, Matt Emerick and Gabe Mann all battling for a job in center field. Caraballo, who may also play left field, hails from Torrance, Calif. and will bring the Gauchos a strong presence from the right side of the plate.

“He’s got a very good offensive future,” Brontsema said. “He has some things he has to work on defensively, but he’s a good athlete and he’s going to be a very good right-handed hitter for us.”

Emerick, a local standout from Santa Barbara High, bats left and throws right and has a promising future at UCSB.

“I’m playing my hardest,” Emerick said. “I don’t really expect to play at this point because I’m a freshman, but if I do I’ll be really excited about that. I thought I played pretty well [in the fall] but I thought I could have done the little things better.”

Another fresh face battling for an outfield spot is junior transfer Brian Adams, from El Camino College. Although Adams was injured for most of the fall, he has gotten himself healthy and in place to compete for a spot.

“He can run, and throw a little bit, and he’s definitely got experience and that’s gonna help him out,” Brontsema said.

The skipper has just over two weeks to finalize his roster and ready his freshmen and the rest of his platoon for what should be a very exciting opening weekend.

The Gauchos will open their season on Jan. 31 at home with a three-game series against San Diego State and new Head Coach Tony Gwynn, a former San Diego Padre.