The future is always bright for the UCSB women’s basketball team, but 2004 might be the year the Gauchos get the monkey off their back.

For two consecutive seasons, Santa Barbara has proved that it belongs on an elite women’s college basketball list marked by teams with perennial national success. The Gauchos made the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight season, but couldn’t break through big-name schools with home court advantages.

Next season, Santa Barbara will display the same drive that has made it successful in the past, while combining a healthy blend of new talent with veteran stars.

“We finished this year on a positive note, and I am very optimistic about next year’s team,” UCSB Head Coach Mark French said. “I also think that we have a ton of returning talent.”

Senior guard April McDivitt, who sat out the entire 2002-03 season after transferring from storied University of Tennessee, looks to fill the void at one of the guard positions vacated by Jess Hansen and Debby Caine.

“[McDivitt] is going to be one of the best point guards in the country,” French said. “She’s so quick and such a great shooter, but what separates her is her competitive instinct. She’s always looking for a way to win at anything.”

Junior forward Kate Bauman, a transfer from Iowa State University, should add considerable depth to a relatively thin post. The 6’6″ Bauman and 6’8″ senior center Lindsay Taylor could create a lineup of formidable twin towers.

“Kate is a very good, tall player,” French said. “Her presence will also allow Lindsay to be a little more aggressive rebounding and blocking shots.”

The Gauchos will welcome two freshmen to the squad next season. Santa Barbara signed 6’4″ forward Jenna Green from San Jose and 5’7″ point guard Erin O’Bryan from Gilbert, Ariz.

“When we recruited these girls we didn’t talk about redshirting them the first season,” French said. “We haven’t redshirted many girls here. We will have to see how they progress when they get here before that can be settled, though.”

Santa Barbara returns seven scholarship players from last year, with each contributing quality minutes. Taylor and guard Lisa Willett will be the only seniors on next year’s squad. Willett averaged 8.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in nearly 26 minutes last season. Taylor, who has improved significantly every season, is coming off a dominant year where she earned the 2003 Big West Player of the Year and All-American honors by The Associated Press.

“Lindsay will get better dealing with double teams,” French said. “If she can continue to stay aggressive and become a better passer out of the post, she will be a tough girl to defend.”

Junior Kristen Mann missed nearly two months with a broken forearm but still managed to earn First Team All-Big West honors after posting career highs in points and rebounds with 14.2 and 6.4, respectively.

“Kristen is such a great player, but she needs to improve her rebounding and defense,” French said. “To meet her potential as an All-American or whatever you want to call it she will need to be consistent.”

Mia Fisher, Brandy Richardson and Haddy Sarr all return for their junior seasons. Richardson absolutely dominated the offensive and defensive glass during the Gauchos’ run for their ninth straight Big West title. Richardson averaged 9.2 rebounds per game including 99 offensive boards. Richardson showed confidence shooting the perimeter shot in the Big West Tournament and will look to better her offensive next season. Fisher, the most athletic player on the roster, will hopefully grow comfortable shooting behind the arc.

“I expect to have Brandy and Mia continue to build confidence in their perimeter shooting,” French said. “Mia has a great jump shot but she just prefers to drive to the basket. They will both make huge strides over the summer.”