In 2001, the UCSB baseball team made its last appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Since then, the Gauchos haven’t finished higher than fourth place in the Big West Conference and have been looking for some way to return to the status of three years ago.

This year, the Gauchos think they have found it. A combination of weathered veterans, a group of strong arms, a new pitching coach and a difficult schedule may turn out to be exactly what UCSB needs to compete in the tough Big West Conference in 2005.

The Gauchos finished the 2004 season tied for fourth place in conference with an overall record of 33-21 and 10-11 in the Big West. For the first time in school history, UCSB recorded over 30 wins and did not reach the NCAA Tournament.

After losing eight players to graduation last year, including three starters, 12th-year Head Coach Bob Brontsema is looking to improve upon last year’s finish by playing a more difficult schedule that includes 21 games against NCAA Tournament teams.

“Our schedule is as good this year as it has been in a long, long time. We have a lot of challenges against us,” Brontsema said. “The reason we didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament last year was because our schedule wasn’t as good last year as it is this year.”

A solid group of players return to the field for UCSB. The 2005 roster features 18 upperclassmen, with 15 that saw action for the Gauchos last season.

“We have a pretty veteran squad. We are carrying six or seven starters [from last year],” Brontsema said. “On top of that we return all three of our starting weekend pitchers as well as some key guys from the bullpen. So we’re very strong in terms of experience.”

Among the returnees from last season is sophomore shortstop Chris Valaika. Valaika played with the USA National Team over the summer, helping the team win a gold medal in the FISU World University Games in Taiwan.

Seniors second baseman Chris Malec and right fielder Matt Wilkerson return as four-year starters for the Gauchos. Both garnered Freshman All-American honors in 2002 and Malec was a First-Team All Big West selection last season.

“Usually what happens is that players will look to the guys who have the most success and [Malec and Wilkerson] have had that success in their time here,” Brontsema said. “They are leaders in this program, the players do look to them.”

Wilkerson tied for the team lead with nine home runs last season, scoring 37 runs. Along with Malec, the two Santa Margarita High teammates combined to drive in 110 runs last season, more than a quarter of the team’s total runs batted in.

The Gauchos welcome a familiar face back to the bench this season in pitching coach Tom Myers. Hired in July 2004, Myers returns to UCSB after serving as pitching coach at Santa Clara for the past three seasons. Myers was the Gauchos’ pitching coach for three years, helping them reach the NCAA Tournament in 2001.

“For the pitching staff in particular, [Myers] brings a different look than what they were used to the last couple of years. I think it’s been a good adjustment for them,” Brontsema said. “He has a different personality than what they were used to. So it’s a different point of view; it’s kind of a refreshing thing for them.”

Myers inherits a solid group of starters for this season. Right-handed starters, juniors Steve Morlock and Michael Martin and Andy Graham, will return as the Gauchos’ weekend pitching rotation. Last season, the three combined for 20 wins, with Martin starting off the season 8-0. Although the three faltered during the Big West season, Brontsema is confident that this season will be different.

“I think the pitching is going to be a strength for us,” Brontsema said. “Hopefully [the starters] will be stronger this year and hopefully we’ll be able to use them more efficiently so they’ll be able to go the full race.”

In the bullpen, UCSB will look to senior right-handers Loren Fraser and Alex McRobbie to put in quality innings in relief. Fraser, McRobbie or junior right-hander Nate Holguin could likely become the consistent closer that the Gauchos couldn’t find last season.

“[Myers] has done a great job with them and he’s been handed a very good group of arms and student-athletes so he’s got some good things to work with,” Brontsema said. “I definitely think he’s the right guy to get them that extra step that maybe we didn’t get last year.”

UCSB starts its season off with a home-away-home series against Pepperdine on Feb. 4-6. Pepperdine, along with six other 2005 opponents, were ranked in Baseball America’s Preseason Top 50 rankings.