The UCSB softball team is hungering for more this year after reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last year. With a core of experienced players and some fresh new faces, Santa Barbara may be able to satisfy its hunger.

Last year, the Gauchos finished in a tie with Northridge for second in the Big West with a 32-31 overall and 14-7 conference record. To make up for losing three seniors to graduation, Santa Barbara added six freshmen to its core group of nine sophomores, one junior and one senior. Factor in strong bats and healthy pitching, and UCSB Head Coach Kristy Schroeder thinks the Gauchos could go far.

“Our goal is always to win the Big West and I think we’re capable of doing that this year,” Schroeder said. “Last year I think we were capable of winning the Big West too, but I think I misjudged that you do have to have the experience to go in and win.”

Experience will be on the Gauchos side as they take the field against some of the toughest teams in the country. First up is reigning national champion UCLA on Sunday. UCSB will also face off against a number of teams that reached the post-season last year in the Commercial Capital Early Bird Tourney and UNLV Invitational next month.

The Big West will be no easy feat for any member in the top four teams – Long Beach State, Northridge, UCSB and Pacific – all earning bids to the NCAA Tournament last year. Big West play kicks off for Santa Barbara toward the end of March and will continue through mid-May.

“It’s a pretty balanced schedule. It will give us some good competition, but there will be some winnable games in there too,” Schroeder said. “You need to do well in our conference and that allows us, most likely, to make it to post-season because our conference is so strong. I think we’re capable of beating any team if we come out and play our very best.”

The Gauchos bench runs deep from the bottom to the top of the line-up with freshman Chelsi Bush leading off. The Escondido, Calif., native will replace senior Leslie Simien, whose speed led her into the NCAA record books for steals.

“It’s always hard to replace Leslie’s speed, but I think Chelsi has a lot of speed as well. The nice thing about her is that she can hit too,” Schroeder said.

Bush may play second base or outfield, depending on the rest of the infield. If sophomore infielder Brittany Putich, who started every game last year for the Gauchos at the two bag, plays shortstop, then sophomore Kendra Singley will play first base. Should Singley start at short, where she did every game last year as a freshman, then Putich will play second.

Sophomore pitchers Jennifer Davis and Lindsey Sommer may also see some time at first, while junior Karyna Wilkerson will patrol the hot corner for UCSB.

Should Bush not play second base, she may split time with sophomore Jessica Hejna in left field with sophomore Liz Walters in center, and either Davis or freshmen Alexandra Kinney or Danielle Meyers in right.

Also new to the team this year is San Luis Obispo native Megan Ochylski who is being worked in at first base as well. Freshman Brenda Lira will back up sophomore Shelby Hensler behind the plate. Last year, Hensler was third on the team with a .269 batting average and was able to gun down roughly half of base stealers. Nicole Churnock, a freshman out of Orange, Calif., will spend time patrolling the outfield.

“The nice thing about Meyers is that she has a little bit more depth – she can play in the infield, in the outfield and she also has some experience catching. She definitely brings a lot of depth to the team and some power,” Schroeder said. “Kinney has great speed and Churnock has an extremely positive attitude and she’s nice at the plate because she can slap and hit away.”

The Gauchos have all four of their pitchers returning in sophomores Davis and Sommer, junior Carly Harmon and senior Lindsey Herrin. Both Davis and Sommer have great variety in their pitches and saw time last year with Davis going 16-16 with a 2.83 ERA. Sommer trailed off toward the end of the 2004 season but still finished with a 3.25 ERA.

Herrin is able to throw straight heat and pitched for the first time in her college career last year with a team low 2.75 ERA in 16 appearances. Harmon only pitched 35 innings last year and is still recovering from a season-ending injury but looks to return strong this year.

“Pitching looks great this year. I feel pretty comfortable with our pitching selection, we have four healthy arms and all of them are a little different,” Schroeder said. “I think they all complement each other really well. If we can be real strong on the mound, then we’ll have a good team this year.”

Herrin led the Gauchos in the vast majority of offensive categories with a school record 10 home runs, a team high 35 RBIs and .481 and 25 walks. Singley was also an offensive threat for UCSB with her team-high 28 runs and 14 doubles and went six for nine in stealing bases.

“I don’t think we have a weak spot. I don’t think in our lineup, one through nine, there’s not a spot where you’re thinking, “Oh no, this person’s not really going to be able to do it,” Schroeder said.

The Gauchos kick off their season Sunday with a doubleheader against UCLA at Campus Diamond with the first pitch at 11 a.m..