One would think that after losing last year’s Big West Player of the Year Uzma Khan, the UCSB women’s tennis team would be in for a long season. Not quite. In fact, the Gauchos reloaded this year with a solid core of young talent and returning players. Losing only Khan to graduation, UCSB retains a strong group of experienced netters primed to challenge for the Big West title.

Sophomore Marielle Gruenig from Switzerland will attempt to fill the void left by Khan by taking over the #1 singles spot. Gruenig posted a solid rookie campaign in the #2 singles seed finishing up with a 17-7 record.

Another talented sophomore Andrea Pintar, a native of Minnesota, was promoted from the #3 spot where she recorded a 17-7 singles record to the #2 seed.

In the #3 spot is sophomore Mio Fukushima, who transferred to UCSB from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Last year at Hawaii, Fukushima finished with a 13-11 record in singles and a 13-9 doubles mark. While in high school, Fukushima was ranked one of the top five players in Northern California.

Sophomore Leslie Damion will play in the #4 singles spot after putting up an 11-16 record last year. Damion and Pintar will likely team up for doubles again this year after the duo put up an impressive 20-6 record in doubles play.

The #5 and #6 spots will be filled by senior co-captain Jen Kuhle and sophomore Amy Vyhnis. The #7 spot will be held down by freshman Kristen Wilson, who dominated while at Dana Hills High School, ending her senior season with a 54-6 record.

Last year’s squad finished a respectable 16-8 last year and looks to be even better this year. In the Big West Tournament, UCSB lost a nail-biter to eventual champion Cal Poly 4-3. The #75 ranked Gauchos look to avenge the loss today in San Luis Obispo against the #65 ranked Mustangs. Cal Poly (5-2) is riding high fresh off a recent upset of #46 ranked University of San Diego. It was the first victory of its kind in school history over a team ranked in the top 50.

Winning the Big West will be a challenge for UCSB while there is a logjam of nationally ranked teams. Long Beach State opens up its season ranked #58 in the nation. While they have posted an unimpressive 0-3 mark over their first three contests, all of the 49ers’ opponents have been ranked higher than them nationally. Long Beach won the Big West Championship in 2002 and was knocked off in the Big West finals to Cal Poly last year. Long Beach is led by #1 seed junior Nicole Bouffler, who won the USD/SDSU Invitational earlier this year and a doubles championship alongside teammate Tammy Day in the Fullerton Invitational.

UC Irvine enters the year with a #63 ranking and a 2-1 record. Irvine should contend for the Big West title after ending last year with a #59 ranking. Irvine also returns two All-Big West honors from last year in Tiffany Chang and Anna Bentzer.

UC Riverside, although entering the season unranked, may be the dark horse in the five-team horserace after knocking off the #75 ranked Gauchos in their conference opener.

Rounding out the Big West is Utah State, University of the Pacific, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fullerton and the University of Idaho. None of these teams realistically should be a threat in the Big West. Utah State finished 9-10 last year, but it was also the best record for women’s tennis in school history. Idaho has an overall record of 5-2 and defeated Northridge but does not expect to contend for the Big West. Annual pushover UOP finished with a 6-15 mark and has experienced a losing record for the past three years. Cal State Northridge has a 1-3 (0-1 in Big West) record coming into this weekend’s match against the Gauchos.

First serve will be at noon Saturday at the Rob Gym tennis courts, and the match will be catered courtesy of the Gaucho Caf&eacute and Catering.