A year after advancing to the Division I Elite Eight, the UCSB men’s rugby team rings in the new year ranked 10th in the nation. Fresh off of a victory over #8 St. Mary’s on Jan. 8, the Gauchos are optimistic about the upcoming season.

“We’ve got a good group of players returning, so there’s high expectations,” Head Coach Kevin Battle said. “We want to build on our success from last year in the postseason and be better than we were last year. I think we’re better prepared than we were last season, and this group of guys has the opportunity to be really good.”

Last year’s squad finished with a record of 12-2-1, earning a top-15 ranking and home games in the first two rounds of the Division I playoffs. Behind a high-scoring offense and a fast, physical defense that tended to outlast opponents on the field, the Gauchos defeated Wyoming 21-0 in the Sweet 16 before losing to Utah in the final minutes of the Elite Eight game. The team is looking just as good or better this year.

“It never stops moving,” junior Kyle McBride said. “The game is so fast-paced and physical, even if you don’t know what’s going on you can still watch the big hits and precision passes. The team’s got a lot of potential, a lot of power and experience.”

After a fluke loss to unranked UC Davis in their first preseason game, the Gauchos redeemed themselves against #8 St. Mary’s with a 25-20 victory in a very competitive game.

“It was a good effort, St. Mary’s is a talented team,” Battle said. “We won not because we have better players, but because we had the better team, and we played together more cohesively.”

Santa Barbara will be ranked in the top 10 going into the 2006 campaign. With lofty rankings comes pressure, but the Gauchos are not dismissing any opponent they come up against.

“It’s a good feeling, being ranked high, because it lets you know that everyone respects you,” McBride said. “But it’s also a dangerous thing, because you don’t want to get stuck in that mindset that you’re top-10. You have to bring your A-game every time, because #17 can easily beat you any day. The other thing is that with being ranked so high, everyone we play will be looking to knock us off.”

The Gauchos will face their biggest test thus far against #4 Utah on Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. at Rob Field. After surrendering a 12-point lead to Utah in the playoffs last year, the Gauchos are looking for revenge.

“It’s going to be a huge test,” Battle said. “They went to the championship game last year, and they were the ones who beat us in the quarterfinals last year. They’re ranked fourth in the nation this season, so we know it’s going to be a really tough, physical game. If you like contact sports and big collisions, there will be plenty of those.”

Battle’s team is practicing hard this week and is prepared to leave everything on the field when Utah comes to town.

“This one is pretty big,” McBride said. “That was such a heart-breaking game to lose last season. A lot of people feel they stole one from us, and we want to get it back from them here.”