It is all about realizing potential for the UCSB men’s cross country team while it tries to put itself back on the national map.

The Gauchos look to improve upon a season in which they finished 10th out of 26 teams in the NCAA Western Regional Championships. Experience is likely going to be the key for the team this season, as it returns all but one member of last year’s roster.

“The great thing about this team is that we do have a lot of older guys that have been in some tough situations, as well as some talented younger runners that we can learn from,” senior Scott McConville said. “It’s a good mix of talent and experience and we can all learn from each other.”

The major event the Gauchos will be focusing their preparation on is Pre-Nationals, where the top 50 teams will compete Oct. 1. A strong performance by Santa Barbara at Pre-Nationals would open the door to the possibility of making it to Nationals. UCSB looks to use its disappointing 28th place Pre-Nationals performance last year as motivation to parlay its experience into a strong finish.

“Last year the guys were a little younger, this will be the first time going to the meet prepared for everything,” Assistant Coach David Monico said. “With experience, they know exactly what to expect and exactly how to handle that pressure.”

UCSB got its season started with a match against last season’s conference champion and the team that finished 10th in Nationals last season, Cal Poly. While they faced what is likely to be their toughest competition conference-wise, the Gauchos showed that they could remain competitive, finishing a close second with a score of 28-34, despite not racing several key team members.

“We’ve always felt that we can beat [Cal Poly],” Monico said. “This race really set the tone for us – it took out a lot of what ifs and question marks and gave the team an identity and our goal for the season is to make sure that we can keep that up.”

The story of Santa Barbara’s season-opener, however, was junior Mike Chavez, who scored the individual win for the Gauchos and beat the course record by six seconds, finishing with a time of 24:29.0. The impressive performance by Chavez earned him the honor of Big West Athlete of the Week. Sophomore Chris Ashley also turned in a noteworthy performance, finishing second with a time of 24:32.7, though he was racing unattached.

For the second event of the season, the UC Irvine Invitational, UCSB sent out a smaller “B” team to compete. Despite not running with its full arsenal, UCSB finished third in the event with a team score of 104, bested only by Chico with 18 and Long Beach, 63. Junior Justin Coburn led the way for UCSB individually, finishing 11th overall with a time of 23:15.8.

Already off to a decent start, this season may turn out to be a banner one for the Gauchos, granted if they can rise to the occasion in the big events.

“Our goals are not too well defined – what we want to do is run to our potential and if we run to our potential, we should be surprising a lot of people across the country,” McConville said. “We want to run well at the important meets – Pre-Nationals, Conference and Regionals, and if we run to our potential we should be surprising a lot of people.”