If optimism were a drug, the UCSB softball team would be on the trip of their lives right now, and certainly not without just cause.

The Gauchos just hope this drug peaks come tourney time.

With the swelling of 64 teams to the postseason tournament, a wide open Big West field, and momentum from a breakthrough season, the Gauchos are licking their chops at the prospects of a prosperous 2003 campaign.

“We’re excited for the season to begin. We have competitive confidence,” UCSB Head Coach Kristy Schroeder said. “It’s going to be important to peak at the end and play well in conference.

“Last year we were taught what it takes to win.”

Seven returning starters and a solid incoming freshman class will look to improve upon a fourth-place finish from last year (26-33 overall, 12-12 in the Big West), a tremendous improvement from their last-place finish in 2001.

The turnaround of the program came on the heels of Schroeder’s arrival. The skipper has implanted a new and evidently effective attitude in the once lethargic Gauchos.

Senior RHP Loren Thornburg was there to see both sides of the spectrum and will once again be relied upon to be the ace of the pitching staff.

“Last year, even if we got down, we could fight back,” Thornburg said. “This year we have the attitude that we expect to win.”

Infielder Heather Nobbe, a junior transfer from New Mexico State and a First Team All-Sun Belt selection will have to fill the shoes of graduated slugger and current UCSB Assistant Coach Julia Tamai.

“This is a program on the rise,” Nobbe said.

The Gauchos will also welcome the return of 2001 Second Team All-Big West selection junior E.J. Lauchland, who was MIA last year due to injuries. Lauchland, a team captain this year and the slated starter at second base, was the Gauchos’ most productive hitter in 2001. Lauchland was a vacuum in the infield, having made just one error her sophomore campaign.

Starting catcher senior Jami Trinidad will also be a lethal force in the box this year. The National Fastpitch Coaches Association Second Team All-West Region and Second Team All-Big West selection led the Gauchos in seven offensive categories, including RBIs (Trinidad was one shy of the UCSB single season record), home runs, and on-base percentage in 2002.

“If our pitchers and defense hold up and keep us in it, our bats can win it,” Schroeder said of the talent her hitters possess.

In the outfield, the Gauchos return all of their starters. With seniors Ashley Groefsema and Natalie Adame in left and center respectively and All-Big West junior Leslie Simien in right, UCSB should be solid. Last year, Simien set a conference record with 39 steals and is a luxury to have as her speed allows UCSB to manufacture runs.

Groefsema will probably lead off for the Gauchos, while Adame will be a likely candidate to drive her in, should she reach base. Adame was third on the team in RBI’s last year and trotted the bases twice, proving she has a little pop in her bat.

The arrival of a strong freshmen class featuring slated number two pitcher Carly Harmon, backup catcher Alicia Thompson and infielders Diane Gerry, Kim Iversen and Karyna Wilkerson bodes well for the future, but all five are thinking immediate success for the righteously optimistic Gauchos.