Entering their final series of the regular season, the Santa Barbara softball team knew that playing at perennial conference powerhouse Cal State Fullerton was a tall order. Although they failed to produce a victory, the team once again proved it could play with any team in the country.

The Gauchos dropped all three games against the Titans, the nation’s sixth-ranked team. UCSB lost 8-3 and 2-0 on Friday before succumbing to two Fullerton homeruns in a 4-1 loss Saturday.

As of late Sunday night, Santa Barbara (34-22, 9-11 Big West) still had a glimmer of hope that they would pick up an at-large bid to the NCAA Regionals. But their slow finish probably ends those hopes.

Though the conclusion to the season was disappointing, it was still a successful and exciting season. The Gauchos’ dynamic pitching duo of senior Loren Thornburg and freshman Carly Harmon kept UCSB in almost every game. And seniors third baseman Chantal Pershing and catcher Jami Trinidad led a balanced hitting attack. But for Santa Barbara, the ending was bittersweet.

“We had opportunities with runners in scoring position,” UCSB Head Coach Kristy Schroeder said. “And we needed to come up with the big hits and we didn’t. We’ve struggled getting those hits lately. I saw a little bit of the team of the past out there this weekend, really focused, a lot of excellent at-bats. I think that as the long season went on, we got a little frustrated and got away from that a little bit.”

Schroeder put much of the blame on herself for the Gauchos fading down the stretch.

“We started off strong and exciting to watch, up until Spring Break,” Schroeder said. “But after the break we lost that focus and excitement. We have a really long season, and if I could do it over again, I’d try to make sure that the team stayed strong throughout the season.”

On the positive side, Santa Barbara has a highly touted recruiting class that should ease the strain of losing seniors Thornburg, Trinidad and Pershing.

“Loren threw well early, Jami really came on with the bat as the season went on,” Schroeder said. “And if anyone gave everything they had every game it was Pershing. We’ll miss our kids. But I feel comfortable with the fresh talent coming in. We have a great recruiting class. We will have a lot more depth. In next year’s class we have a lot of people who traveled and competed at a high level. Most of Fullerton’s team this year was seniors. Absolutely we will compete better with them next year.”

The 2003-04 Gauchos will look to build on the success of this year’s squad, one of the best in school history.

‘This year we had really strong hitters,” junior second baseman E.J. Lauchland said. “We had a really strong bench; anybody can come in and do the job. We need to focus on finishing and being strong throughout. I don’t think we concentrated enough on the little things, like drag bunting, which Chantal does so well. But she can’t bunt for the rest of us. Those are the type of things that, if we want to win, we gotta do ’em.”

Lauchland praised the “team first” nature of the ball club.

“I felt like even though we didn’t beat Fullerton, we are better than them in the fact that we play as a team. On their team, it seemed like they were all playing for personal success. We have team camaraderie. And this season, like in the Oregon game in San Diego, we showed that we could beat anybody. We have a lot of prospects for next year, and the direction our program is going in is exciting.”