With plenty of new faces and the return of a handful of prominent pitchers, the UCSB baseball team is back to improve on last year’s disappointing campaign.

Santa Barbara is coming off a season in which it finished seventh in the Big West with a 26-30 overall record and an 8-13 conference mark. Last year the Gauchos got off to an impressive 7-2 start, but went on to drop eight of their next nine and lost momentum heading into conference play.

“We had some rough times losing some players to injury and we had a few losing series in a row and just didn’t pick ourselves out of it as quickly as we wanted to,” senior pitcher Andrew Schoneberger said. “Our pitching went down a little bit and we just went down into a rut and couldn’t get out.”

Santa Barbara will be without most of their offensive production from last season. The top six RBI leaders have all departed, a group that accounted for 29 of the 38 Gaucho home runs last year.

“We’re going to miss Chris Malec and Matt Wilkerson driving in a lot of runs for us and having consistent leadership always in the lineup,” junior shortstop Chris Valaika said. “We do have a lot of junior college transfers and some young bats that should do the job.”

Returning to roam the middle of the infield are Valaika and sophomore second baseman Alden Carrithers. Valaika was named to the Wallace Watch List by the College Baseball Foundation, making him a legitimate candidate for the National Player of the Year Honor. Valaika appeared in only 18 games before missing the remainder of the season due to injury, but was a Freshman All-American and member of the All-Big West Second team his freshman year. Junior Robbie Blauer and freshman Matt Clark will take over at first and third base.

“We’re going to be young [in the infield], but it’s going to be a great opportunity for them to get in early and earn a job,” Valaika said.

Junior outfielder Mario Lewis came from Butte College and is expected to get the starting nod in right field. For the third straight season senior outfielder Matt Emerick will patrol center field. The early games of the season will help the coaching staff decide if senior C.J. Cook or junior Brian Lee gets penciled in at left field.

UCSB nearly brought back all three weekend starters from last season, but senior pitcher Michael Martin, second on the staff in wins last year, suffered an arm injury forcing him to redshirt the season. Returning are senior pitcher Steve Morlock and junior pitcher Andy Graham. Morlock lead the Gauchos with seven wins while Graham chipped in four of his own a season ago. Junior pitcher Brian Tracy steps into the starting rotation for Martin after spending two years in the bullpen.

“[The starters] having experience is going to be good. They’re not going to be nervous out there, they’ve done it before,” junior pitcher Justin Segal said. “They can give us five, six or seven strong innings and I think we have a good bullpen again.”

The bullpen features the return of Segal and Schoneberger. Plenty of newcomers will be asked to step into heavy relief roles including freshman pitcher Clayton Edwards, expected to be the next Santa Barbara closer.

The UCSB schedule includes ten games against NCAA Tournament qualifiers and a trip to Hawaii over spring break. The Gauchos will play their first seven games at home, not heading out on the road until a Feb. 24 game at Cal.

“Since we have a lot of young guys and a lot of transfers it’ll help our freshman get acquainted for this sort of atmosphere, get all the jitters out of them and hopefully we’ll start off on a good note,” Segal said.

Santa Barbara maintained a 16-14 record at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium, but could only muster four home wins in conference play while dropping eight.

“Our field is a tough field to play at,” Schoneberger said. “Wind and sun are always a factor. It’s a hitters’ ballpark; or – other pitchers hate to pitcher here, so that gives our team an advantage.”

Returning to the bench for the 13th year is Head Coach Bob Brontsema. Brontsema has overseen 46 players drafted into professional baseball, and the 2001 Santa Barbara squad won 40 games.

“[Brontsema] is a very good coach. He is experienced, and he knows everything about the game,” Segal said. “There is not one thing that flies by him that he doesn’t catch.”

The first test for the Gauchos will be cross-town rival Westmont, a team UCSB defeated 14-2 and 19-5 last season.

“We’re excited to get started,” Valaika said. “Westmont is just the first team. Usually we do get ahead of them a little bit, but just like any opponent we can’t overlook them. I’m itching to get back.”

The first pitch is at 2 p.m. today at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.