The #9 UCSB men’s water polo team will kick into high gear this weekend with a trio of competitive matchups.

The Gauchos (10-3 overall) will play their first official home matches against UC San Diego and UC Irvine on Friday and Saturday, respectively, before hitting the road to face Pepperdine on Sunday. After playing all 13 of its previous matches on the road, there is no doubt that the Gauchos will be welcomed home by a supportive crowd.

Santa Barbara has been out of action the past week after making its home debut in last Saturday’s alumni game. Prior to that, the Gauchos finished ninth out of 16 teams in the NorCal Tournament in which they finished 3-1, defeating Santa Clara, Navy and #12 Pepperdine. The ninth-place finish was impressive considering the competition included 14 teams currently ranked in the top 20, as well as all 12 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation teams. UCSB’s play was enough to move up a spot in the rankings, climbing from 10th to ninth in the nation.

Offensively, the Gauchos are led by the outstanding play of junior driver Ross Sinclair, who has already scored 33 goals on the season, and two weeks ago was named MPSF player of the week. He also leads the team with 20 assists.

On Friday, UCSB will take on #4 UC San Diego (12-2), who defeated the Gauchos 9-7 earlier this season at the Triton Invitational on Sept. 3. San Diego was also in action at the NorCal Tournament and it finished fifth overall. The Tritons are a game and a half up on the Gauchos in the standings, so a win for UCSB could jump-start its season in the right direction.

Santa Barbara will play conference rival #11 Irvine on Saturday. UCSB also faced the Anteaters (15-4) at the Triton Invitational, but the Gauchos came away with the 8-7 win in a thrilling overtime game. Though both teams are part of the MPSF, the match will have no weight in the MPSF standings.

Santa Barbara will be led in the net by veteran junior goaltender Rick Wright, who has started for the Gauchos for two straight years. Thus far in 2006, Wright has allowed 7.5 goals per game and has been a stable force for UCSB on the defensive end.

Sunday the Gauchos will head south to Malibu where they will face another conference opponent, Pepperdine (10-8), for the second time in as many weeks. UCSB dominated the Waves 13-6 thanks to three goals from both freshman driver Tamas Donauer and junior two-meter defender Matt Dale, who led the Gauchos in scoring in the tournament with eight goals. Like the Irvine match, UCSB’s clash against Pepperdine will not count in the conference standings.

The Gauchos’ home matches will take place at Campus Pool tomorrow at 4 p.m. and Saturday at 12 p.m.
– Cassie Harris