The UCSB softball team has packed its bags and is off to the Big Dance for the second time in program history. The Gauchos begin their NCAA tournament trip today, facing off against Notre Dame University in the first game of the four-team, double-elimination Evanston Regional.

Santa Barbara (24-20 overall, 8-10 in the Big West) earned an at-large bid to Regionals last Sunday after finishing fourth in conference. Cal State Fullerton, which earned the automatic berth after finishing first in the Big West, and second-place Long Beach State join UCSB in the tournament.

The Gauchos earned their nod over third place Cal Poly as a result of their performance against ranked teams and their ratings percentage index of 59, which was higher than 13 schools with automatic berths.

Northwestern (42-12 overall), Notre Dame (40-19 overall) and Southern Illinois University (34-11 overall) join Santa Barbara at Sharon J. Drysdale Field for the first round of playoffs.

“We can hopefully beat every team out there, so I’m really happy with the Regional we drew,” UCSB Head Coach Kristy Schroeder said. “I think if we focus on the things we can control and go out there and have a good at-bat each time we get up to the plate … [and communicate] on defense, and if [junior pitcher] Jenn [Davis] works on beating each batter one at a time, then I think we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity to win because when we play together, we play really well.”

The trip marks UCSB’s first postseason appearance since 2004, the Gauchos’ highest conference finish to date. The young team struggled at the Tucson Regional and was eliminated in two games, 8-1 to Northwestern and 3-0 to Temple. Six players on UCSB’s current roster of 17 traveled to Arizona that year, bringing valuable NCAA experience to the table.

Notre Dame is playing in its eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament and took the last game played against UCSB 1-0 last March, despite being held hitless by the Gaucho defense through the first five innings. The Fighting Irish boast a .291 collective batting average, with junior outfielder Stephanie Brown leading the way with a batting average of .396 and a team second .460 on-base percentage.

Host team Northwestern received a fourth seed after finishing first in the Big 10, which had six of its 11 teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats played over half of their games this season against the 2006 Tournament field, posting a 20-12 record overall and 4-7 over the top 12 seeds. Unfavorable conditions cancelled the Northwestern-UCSB game slated for the Worth Invitational in Fullerton in March.

Southern Illinois makes its fourth consecutive trip to Regionals, finishing third in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Salukis post only one win against a ranked team in 2006 – defeating #24 Iowa – and had 22 of their originally-scheduled games cancelled due to inclement weather.

Today’s first pitch is scheduled for 10 a.m. PST from Evanston, Ill.