After setting school records with a .909 winning percentage and 23 straight wins to start the 2002 season, almost any performance the UCSB women’s volleyball team puts forth in 2003 would be considered a disappointment.

The 2002 Gauchos had a fantastic run, finishing 30-3 and earning a spot in the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament. Next year’s club is facing a very tough schedule without the leadership of setter Brooke Niles, middle blocker and Big West Player of the Year Danielle Bauer, and outside hitter Courtney Guerra.

“You don’t replace three girls of their stature, that are seniors, that are experienced, that are role models,” longtime UCSB Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “It would be unrealistic to expect that we could achieve what we did last year.”

Still, the Gauchos are returning senior outside hitter Erica Menzel, a three-time All-Big West selection who led last year’s group with 24 double-doubles. In addition to bringing the most experience to the court, Menzel will inherit some leadership obligations.

“[Menzel will have] the responsibility to be there for the freshmen and give them the competitive spirit,” Gregory said.

Niles will stay on to coach the team as an assistant, paying special attention to junior setter Mari Bell, who will assume Niles’ role in the upcoming season.

“Mari is going to bring us some different things than Brooke did,” Gregory said. “She’s not as aggressive and her first step isn’t as quick, but she’s left-handed and we’re trying to work on her being an attacker of the second ball, and she has a jump serve that Brooke didn’t have.”

It is yet undetermined who will play in the middle after the departure of Bauer, but the choice seems to be between senior Fran Edmonds and junior Amy Sarkaria.

“Fran could be our most physical player, and we might need her to play a couple of positions this year,” Gregory said. “Amy has played in the middle before, but she’ll need to push her competitive spirit to want that spot.”

Junior libero Kristin Nelson and returning Big West Co-Freshman of the Year Megan Blackshire are also returning to bolster the squad.

“Megan has worked very hard on controlling the ball and being more consistent as an offensive player,” Gregory said. “Kristin needs to keep up her consistent passing and be a little more vocal on the court.”

As to who will flank the middle blocker opposite Menzel, Gregory is looking for one of the freshmen to hold that spot. Incoming freshman Janine Sandell touches 10’1” in a vertical leap, and fellow rookies Jamie Garbisch and Kristy Sather are two 5’11” left-side hitters who could win the job.

“Garbisch is going to be an all-around solid player,” UCSB Associate Head Coach Liz Towne-Gilbert said. “Sandell is a great jumper and is extremely competitive, and Sather is very highly motivated and extroverted. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this group develop.”

This young team will begin their season on Aug. 29 at the Long Beach Invitational Tournament and will not play a home game until it kicks off Big West play on Sept. 26 against Riverside. The road to the Big West title will include stops at Loyola Marymount on Sept. 2, the Arizona Invitational Sept. 12-13 and Pepperdine on Sept. 17.

“Since we start off the season with so many games on the road, we’ll all be together and be able to build team chemistry,” Towne-Gilbert said.

Chemistry is a matter of no small consequence, as it will certainly aid the team in finding balance.

“We were successful last year because we had balance,” Gregory said. “Maybe at the beginning of the season, we won’t be as balanced, but we’re going to strive to reach it by the second half of the season. We need to have it to compete for the Big West title and get into the NCAAs.”