It’s been only eight months since the UCSB baseball team wrapped up a disappointing 2002 season, but the beginning of an optimistic 2003 campaign is just around the corner.

Driven by leadership on the mound and youth in the field, the Gauchos will shift into gear this Friday at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium against San Diego State at 2 p.m. Santa Barbara hopes to improve on last year’s forgettable 22-33 record.

“We’re not a star-studded team, per se,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “But we have a good balance and good mix of youth. We may not have the best pitching staff but we’ve got good pitchers and good depth. We may not have the best team speed but we’ve got a lot of good speed. We can do a lot of good things.”

Junior right-handed pitcher Matt Vasquez will be the ace on the mound and will be followed by senior Sean Thompson and freshman Steve Morlock in the rotation. Vasquez, who posted a 5-10 record and a 5.53 ERA in 2002, has made his goals for the season very clear.

“I’m just out there to win the Big West and make a regional,” he said.

Vasquez and Thompson, projected leaders on and off the field, will take the reigns of the green team, according to Brontsema.

“We have a lot of guys that lead by example,” he said. “But our true leaders right now are Vasquez and Thompson.”

Handling the Gauchos’ well-stocked pitching staff will be a duty sought after by four different receivers. Junior catcher Chad Ziemendorf has earned the starting spot behind the plate but will be pressed for innings by senior Nic Rodriguez, junior Taylor Vogt and redshirt freshman Josh LaGrotta. Vogt will also battle for the starting designated hitter spot, according to Brontsema.

Around the horn, the rest of the UCSB infield is still very much up in the air as questions loom at first base and at shortstop.

“Josh McCanne will be play first base, assuming he’s healthy,” Brontsema said of the senior. “He is being pushed by [freshman] Bill Rowe who has done a good job. But right now I expect McCanne to be a pretty good player for us so he’ll be out there.”

Sophomore Chris Malec, who started all 55 of the Gauchos’ games in 2002, will return at second base. The sophomore received Collegiate Baseball’s Freshman All-American honorable mention honors in 2002 after posting a .328 batting average and driving in a team best 60 RBIs. Left-handed hitting junior Nate Sutton will retain his starting position at third base after hitting .272 and scoring 41 runs in 2002.

The biggest question mark in the Gaucho infield sits at shortstop where the battle for the starting spot is still undecided.

“There’s a battle at short with [senior Josh] Fulton and [junior] Greg Powers,” Brontsema said. In 2002 Fulton hit .276 in 28 games while Powers only appeared in five games while playing at the University of Arizona.

Senior sparkplug Blair Havens will be the Gauchos’ left fielder while sophomore slugger Matt Wilkerson will start in right. Wilkerson is coming off an incredible freshman season in which he earned Baseball America’s second-team All-American honors after hitting .312 and a team-leading 16 home runs. He also drove in 49 runs and led the team with a .635 slugging percentage.

The job in center field is still up for grabs and, at least at the outset, will consist of a battle between three newcomers. Junior transfer Brian Adams and freshmen Matt Emerick and Gabe Mann will be among those competing for the job.

UCSB will face an unquestionably formidable schedule in 2003, taking on seven nonconference teams that advanced to the postseason last year. Beginning with a Feb. 4 matchup against USC, the Gauchos will then take the field against powerhouses including Houston, Washington and Pepperdine before moving into conference play on March 14.

Vasquez, Friday’s probable starter, said he believes his team’s only downfall could only come from within.

“Defensively and offensively we’re going to be strong,” he said. “I don’t really see any weaknesses, we’ve just got to go out and compete on game day.”

His coach could not agree more.

“If we go out and play the game, we’ll be there in the end,” Brontsema said. “Right now I’m very encouraged.”