UCSB men’s cross country emerges this year as a new team with a fresh look. The team may lack experience, but not grit.

“A lot of teams are dreaming of reaching the highest level. We’re dreaming too, but we did the work. There were no slackers this summer,” UCSB Head Coach Pete Dolan said.

After a stroke of luck, senior Jeff Gardina will return this season as the Gauchos’ top runner. Last year, Gardina qualified for nationals and proved himself a strong competitor race after race. He finished 114th at the NCAA Championships and earned All-Conference honors. Dolan will rely on Gardina as an anchor. The Gauchos did, however, lose three key runners, Chris White, David Monico and Pablo Gallegos, who all came through for UCSB in cross country as well as track.

“We do have the personnel to fill in,” Dolan said. “Gardina is returning in the top spot. We’re working on the inexperience. It’s a different feel – a fresh outlook – to be relying on two sophomores, [Mike] Chavez and [Chris] Ashley. I think they’re ready but still have to prove it.”

Ashley stunned the team with his surprise victory at the Fresno State Invitational, overcoming all of rival Cal Poly’s top runners to win the meet. Cal Poly will be UCSB’s toughest competition once again and is currently ranked 13th in the nation. Last season, Ashley ran at the Big West Championships, helping the Gauchos take second place behind Cal Poly.

Chavez proved to be an important and promising freshman last year. He ran fourth for UCSB at pre-nationals and finished 20th at the Big West Championships.

Dolan also expects top-level runs from junior Alex Cardiasmenos – who ran in the No. 2 spot for the Gauchos at Fresno, finishing sixth overall – and newcomer junior transfer J.D. Krawczyk. Junior Ryan McGinnis became a major contender in track and is slated to help the Gauchos immensely. Other top returning runners include junior Ben Berkowitz and junior Loren Bland.

“For pre-nationals, we’re good through four but it always takes five in cross country,” Dolan said. “That’s what happened to us last year. That extra 70 points took us out and we’re still stinging.”

UCSB is not currently ranked in the top 25, but Dolan guesses the team falls in the top 50.

“We were much stronger last year, but we’re still strong this year,” Dolan said. “A success this year would be if we could look back at the season and say we are an experienced team.”