Six baseball players departed UCSB last year; some headed for the professional ranks and others to experience the rest of life beyond college. UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema and Pitching Coach Dan Ricabal scoured the state for new talent and came up with a host of pitchers and infielders, some of whom will play an immediate role on the 2004 team.

Senior transfer from Texas Tech Aaron Jones will begin his one-year stint with Santa Barbara at the end, handling closing duties with an array of filthy pitches. He pitches out of a stretch with his back to the plate and releases the ball from different angles, making it very difficult, especially for right-handed batters, to identify his pitches. His sinking fastball has found a home at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, which features a slow infield with long grass as opposed to Texas Tech’s quick turf.

“I was the closer, but I had some arm problems and I lost the job at Tech because others stepped up,” Jones said. “I struggled last year, but I’m a little more mature now and I’ll never let it be a situation where I could lose the job again.”

Redshirt freshmen Andy Graham and Brian Tracy are two young guns who are ready to pitch this year after intensive weight training to bulk up over the span of the 2003 season. True freshman southpaw Andrew Estrada, listed as the lightest player on the team at 160 pounds, will endure similar training and is excited to begin the process. As one of two lefties on the team, however, he expects to see “not only significant innings, but important innings as well.”

Junior transfer Nate Holguin has been a pleasant surprise, pitching well enough in the fall to be considered one of the Gauchos’ weekend starters. Holguin accomplished the starting spot by battling through a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand for most of the fall session. The right-hander bounced around from Cerritos College – where he made four total appearances – to Pasadena City College – where he did not play at all in 2003 – and has developed a toughness the coaching staff appreciates.

“I didn’t sign a letter of intent until the last few weeks, so it was a last-minute deal,” Holguin, who began following UCSB because of fellow West Covina native and current Texas Ranger Michael Young, said. “This whole time, I’ve been fighting to make the cut.”

Big right-hander Loren Fraser, a redshirt junior from Santa Barbara City College, throws hard and will see innings out of the Gaucho bullpen. The durable Fraser set an SBCC record for appearances in a season with 20 and shook off a line drive off his throwing arm in practice last week. Freshman David Filipiak has an assortment of pitches to rely on, but his playing status is uncertain for disciplinary reasons.

UCSB brought in two new catchers to handle the large pitching staff, bringing the total number of catchers on the roster to four. Junior transfer Matt Kalafatis figures to do most of the catching, with freshman Jack Pinkerton learning the ropes of the Gaucho program in his first year. Kalafatis is playing at his third school in as many years and has posted batting averages of .381 and .310 in junior college while following the availability of a catching job.

“You have to play where there’s an opening,” Kalafatis said. “Santa Barbara plays good baseball in a good conference, and when it looked like [former Gaucho catcher Chad] Ziemendorf was going in the draft, I decided to come here.”

The new receivers will have their hands full, as last year’s UCSB pitching staff led the Big West in both wild pitches and hit batsmen. But if it is tough to catch, it is tough to hit, and the catchers have a positive attitude about helping out their battery mates.

“This staff is pretty dirty with guys like Jones and [senior James] Dayley,” Pinkerton said. “At first, it was rough, but I’m starting to get it.”

The battle-tested Gaucho infield also added two fresh faces in junior transfer David Figoni, who redshirted with UCSB last season, and freshman shortstop Chris Valaika. Figoni will play several infield positions this year, and Valaika has stepped right in and earned the starting nod at shortstop.

“Valaika is one of our best recruits ever in terms of notoriety and international experience,” Brontsema said, referring to Valaika’s trips to Curacao and Mexico to play for Team USA.”It’s an ideal situation – he plays like a junior but respects his teammates like a freshman.”

Valaika’s travels certainly make him more mature than most his age, but the young shortstop is ready to learn from his seniors in the infield and knows his role on the team.

“I didn’t come in expecting anything, I had to earn it,” Valaika said. “I had a decent fall, and I hope I get the start against San Diego State.[[ok]]”

In most of their defense and through most of the batting lineup, the Gauchos will have experience on their side, but it’s going to take solid seasons from the cast of newcomers to give UCSB an extra push in 2004.