The UCSB track and field season officially begins this Saturday with both the men’s and women’s teams traveling to UC Irvine’s All-Cal Cup.

The one-day event brings together all the University of California teams from around the state, with the exception of UCLA and Cal. This weekend marks the eighth year the Gauchos have competed in the meet.

“Schools like [UC Davis] and [UC Riverside] will be there, which is great since they are in our conference and we can get a look at the competition,” senior sprinter Kylie McCuen said.

At last season’s meet, the Gaucho women took first place while the men placed second – something the men’s team is looking to make up for this year.

“We may have the ammunition we need to win it on the guys’ side,” UCSB Head Coach Pete Dolan said.

The women will attempt to defend their victory despite some key losses.

“We have a big challenge to repeat because our two best women’s throwers are redshirting – Amy Haapanen and Heather Quinn – it’s pretty tough to rise above that,” Dolan said.

The Gauchos officially opened the season with a non-conference meet two weeks ago against Westmont and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Using it as a warmup for the regular season, UCSB is hoping it allowed the new members of the team to gain some necessary experience.

“[The first meet] got everything we needed to work on as far as meet preparation out of the way,” Dolan said.

The women’s team begins the long challenge of defending last season’s Big West Conference title with this weekend’s meet. UCSB will have to rely on the strong performances of key returners to lead the team this year.

McCuen ran an impressive season last year, winning the 200- and 400-meter conference titles – earning her Big West Female Track Athlete of the Year honors. She is expected to have another strong year in 2006.

Many other members of the team should have successful seasons. After redshirting the 2005 cross country season, distance runners seniors Lauren and Lindsay Christman and juniors Stephanie Rothstein and Megan Lewis will look to help Santa Barbara return to the top of the conference.

“We’ve perennially had great distance runners so we’re still counting on having a strong distance crew to score a lot of points,” Dolan said.

Last year, Lauren Christman was a finalist in the 5,000-meter at the NCAA National Championships, while senior Seanna Martin and junior Bethany Nickless took home All-Conference honors after helping UCSB cross country to a second place Big West finish this fall.

On the men’s side, the Gauchos will rely on senior Scott McConville in the 1,500-meter and junior Mike Chavez for strong times. Also key for UCSB will be the performances of the throwers.

“We’re expecting a lot from our shot-putters, looking for the next move up,” Dolan said.

New members of the Gaucho squad, transfer Bryce Adams and freshman Jeff Campbell, will have some very big shoes to fill this year.

“We are red-shirting our All-American Tetlo Emmen,” Dolan said. “We’re trying to get one more year of training for him to try to get him to the next level.”

The Gauchos appear to be ready for the season. Saturday’s meet is set to begin with the field events at 10 a.m. and track events at 11 a.m.

“We have been working hard all year and are hungry for some competition,” McCuen said.