With the sting of three straight losses in the Big West Tournament championship game over the past three seasons still fresh on its mind, the UCSB women’s soccer team kicks off the 2005 conference season on the road tonight.

After facing off against the likes of #4 UCLA and #23 Arizona in the preseason, the Gauchos (6-6 overall, 0-0 in the Big West) take a well-rested squad to Irvine tonight for the first of seven Big West games leading up to the conference tournament in November.

“Every game counts now and I’m excited about the new beginning. The preseason wore on a little bit,” Head Coach Paul Stumpf said. “These are the teams we play every year, we dislike, we don’t like to lose to and we love to compete against.”

While on some level the team gets to start with a blank slate, the scars acquired during the preseason make it impossible to fully forget the previous games that have brought the Gauchos to this point.

In their last preseason matchup of the season against Davis, UCSB was playing without the likes of three starters: junior forward Chandi Bickford, sophomore midfielder Kathleen Prieto and sophomore defender Jessie Steinberg.

“We are still status quo with [the injuries we had last Friday],” Stumpf said. “It just continues to be this patchwork but [the team] has done well with being put in new roles and trying new things.”

As if matters weren’t problematic enough for the start of conference play, sophomore starting defender Romy Barber went down in practice this week and reportedly will not be back for either of this weekend’s Big West matches.

“There goes another starter,” Stumpf said. “And it was nothing; she just jumped up to head a ball [and that was it].”

Sophomore defender Kandice Mclaughlin practiced Wednesday for the first time this week after an injury in a recent preseason outing.

Irvine (3-8-1 overall, 0-1 Big West) played a similarly difficult preseason to that of UCSB, and their record stands as living proof. As with the Gauchos, one of Irvine’s eight losses came at the feet of the Pac-10’s Arizona State.

“Irvine doesn’t have a heck of a lot of results out of [their tough preseason schedule], but they haven’t been blown out by anybody,” Stumpf said. “They’ve been playing everybody tough, they play in a system that matches up well with what we want to do, and we’re going to their house on a Friday night, so it should be a great game.”

On Sunday, UCSB continues their Southern California road trip when they travel to Long Beach (8-3-1 overall, 1-1 Big West) for a 1 p.m. showdown against one of the hottest teams in the Big West. Only one game away from tying a school record in the wins column, the 49ers will suit up last week’s National Player of the Week freshman midfielder Kim Silos and are a perfect 5-0 at home this season.

“Long Beach has played and beaten some good teams [this preseason] and they had a recruiting class that was ranked among the top 10 in the nation,” Stumpf said. “They have a couple kids on that team that were also national players: I think two kids off the Mexican national pool and a girl that was being highly recruited all over the country by the name of Hayley Bolt (a center midfielder) who is very good.”

First kick is scheduled for 7 tonight in Irvine and 1 p.m. Sunday at George Allen Field in Long Beach, Calif.