After coming up short last season, the UCSB softball team has changed gears – added players and stacked their schedule – and is ready to ring in the 2006 campaign.

With a 26-22 record overall and a 9-12 record in conference, good for fifth in the Big West last year, the Gauchos failed to reach the postseason. However, Santa Barbara returns nine letter-winners and has 10 new faces to make another stab at the NCAA tournament.

“I think that everyone out here this is ready to play, we don’t have the injured athletes sitting on the side distracting and we’ve made some changes in the way we want to run things so I think we’re taking it a little bit more seriously this year,” UCSB Head Coach Kristy Schroeder said. “I think we have the talent to do it and we just have to work hard every day at practice and hopefully that will pay off.”

Losing just one senior in Lindsey Herrin, the Gauchos return a core of junior starters to anchor the squad. Jessica Hejna will patrol left field for UCSB, where she started every game last year. Brittany Putich will stay at shortstop while Kendra Singley will make the move from the infield to center field.

“I think that everyone on the team knows that at particular times they have to lead but mainly the juniors on the squad are the ones making a joint effort to make sure that the team’s doing the right thing,” Schroeder said.

Freshman Tiffany Wright will see time at first base and may be the player to replace the power of the graduated Herrin. Freshman Christine Ramos is tagged to start at second base and to lead off the bats with her speed and slapping ability.

“[Ramos] can hit the ball, slap, bunt, do a little bit of everything, and so I think she’ll really add to our team in that manner because we struggled with having a leadoff batter, a real leadoff batter,” Schroeder said.

Sophomore Ericka Hansen will see time behind the plate, as will sophomore Brenda Lira and junior Shelby Hensler, who is also being worked in at the hot corner with freshman Jackie Conlin and sophomore Danielle Meyers.

“It really kind of depends, I’d like to have Shelby – if she’s ready – in the lineup but I also have to look at who’s hitting the best and performing the best for us,” Schroeder said.

Junior Jennifer Davis will again be the #1 starter for Santa Barbara after going 13-12 last year as the squad’s best ERA with a team-high 197 strikeouts. Freshman Tami Weston, whose pitches have good movement, looks to be the #2 starter and the three spot will go to recent addition junior southpaw Ginger Gutierrez.

“Ginger’s a left-handed pitcher so I think that anytime you see it coming off the other side it makes a difference,” Schroeder said. “I think the speeds are different too – Jenn and Tammy have a little bit more speed on the ball, Ginger doesn’t throw as hard but she’s pretty good at hitting her spots.”

In addition to the new players, the coaching staff has a few freshmen of its own, adding Brie Galicinao and Jessica Mendoza as assistant coaches. Galicinao, an All-American at Princeton, and Mendoza, a member of the U.S. Olympic squad, offer specialized coaching for UCSB.

“I mean obviously I miss [former Assistant Coach Kristi Bredbenner] … but Brie’s been nice to have because she’s completely taken over charge of the pitchers,” Schroeder said. “They’re getting a lot more individual time than they did in the past so hopefully that will pay off, especially with our younger pitching staff.”

Santa Barbara, picked by conference coaches to finish fourth, has a difficult schedule before them, facing off against several Pac-10 teams in addition to a trip to Hawaii before the Big West season kicks off.

UCSB takes to the field Thursday against Sacramento State at San Diego State’s Campbell/Cartier Tournament.