UCSB’s water ski team will travel to Sky Lake in Chico this weekend for a regional qualifying event that could lead to the Gauchos’ first ever appearance at the National Championship Tournament.

The University of Texas at Austin hosts this year’s Nationals. Santa Barbara has never made it to the tournament despite several close finishes over the past few seasons.

“This could be the year for us,” senior captain Matt Bettencourt said. “Our men’s team has the potential to have several top five finishers in each event.”

Bettencourt was one of the few bright spots this past weekend at UCSB’s warm-up event in Barstow. The senior placed ninth in the slalom, on the way to establishing a school record for number of picked-up buoys. Grad student Matt Dummer also had a good showing, placing 15th in the trick jump.

“[Dummer] did a great job. This is his first year with the team, and the first time he jumped in an actual event,” Bettencourt said.

Unfortunately for the Gauchos, the event in Barstow was not a success for the entire team.

“Both the men’s and women’s teams didn’t perform as well as they could have. As far as potential goes, we definitely haven’t tapped ours yet,” Bettencourt said.

UCSB’s water skiers will face tough competition at Chico, where host Arizona State University and other schools hope to win their own bids to nationals. But the Gauchos have yet another strong batch of male skiers who should vie for top spots in slalom, trick and jump.

The return of junior trick expert Craig Shapiro, who recently tore cartilage in his knee, could also bolster UCSB. With this addition, the Gauchos could easily post several top five or even top three finishers in this crucial event. Shapiro’s prognosis is looking good, with the possibility of him being back in the lineup within a few weeks.

“Having Craig back would boost our team tremendously. We were really feeling his absence last weekend [in Barstow],” Bettencourt said.

The question looming over this year’s team, however, is whether or not the women can realize their potential and come through with a strong finish. In order to qualify for Austin, Santa Barbara must perform well in all three events, as well as in both the men’s and women’s categories, in order to earn the necessary points to qualify. The female skiers are led by juniors April Leonard and Stacey Hart.

“To make it to nationals, we need both teams performing well. The women are going to be the real key for us making it. I know they’re looking forward to this weekend,” Bettencourt said.