After dominating the Big West tournament for nine consecutive seasons, the UCSB women’s basketball team found itself entering this season with a key ingredient missing – a tournament title to defend.

Last season, the Gauchos won their 11th straight regular season title with a 16-14 record overall and a 10-4 mark in the Big West, but lost in the conference tournament to Riverside, ending a run of nine consecutive automatic bids to the NCAA tournament. For the 2006-07 campaign, Santa Barbara (7-8 overall, 3-1 in the Big West) has traded in its usual swagger and lofty expectations for a squad defined by its youth and tenacity.

“We’re a lot younger this year than we’ve been in previous years, so I think we wanted to set expectations that would be accomplishable for such a young team,” Head Coach Mark French, now in his 20th season with the Gauchos, said. “I think it’s different [from past seasons] and I think it’s one of the great things about being a coach. Each season is different and this season has been quite interesting and challenging thus far.”

Youth will play a key role in how UCSB responds to the challenges that a full season can bring. The Gauchos feature a roster without a single senior and a fairly even mix of juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Confidence can be a crucial but erratic asset for young teams, so keeping a healthy mentality will be critical for Santa Barbara.

“We wanted to try to make sure that we made it through the preseason with our confidence intact,” French said. “We’ve tried to tread the fine line between allowing youth and inexperience to become an excuse for not reaching our potential and accepting that we are a young team and we need to nurture the young players along.”

Two juniors in particular will lead the charge for the Gauchos this season, center Jenna Green and guard Jessica Wilson. Green, a First Team All-Big West player last season, is a model of stability for Santa Barbara. In addition to the 16.5 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game she is averaging this season, Green, as the team captain, is counted on for her vocal leadership.

“My freshman year I played on the Sweet-16 team, so I’m used to playing with more experienced players,” Green said. “But the youth on this team definitely has its perks as well. I’d say the hardest thing is just trying to be a leader and show how important that is.”

The athletic Wilson is also counted on to lead by example. A versatile offensive threat, Wilson has averaged 13.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and nearly two steals per game. Her stellar athletic ability can electrify both teammates and fans, but consistency for Wilson will be key. Wilson was awarded for her play against Long Beach (3-13, 0-2 Big West) and Irvine (3-12, 1-1 Big West) last week with her second career Big West Player of the Week after sinking an average of 14 points and nabbing an average of seven rebounds in the conference matchups. With a career-high 12 assists against the 49ers, Wilson is also spreading the ball well between multiple Gaucho teammates.

“[Wilson] is one of those breathtaking athletes that can do things on the court that inspire players just by ‘Wow, look what she can do,'” French said. “It’s kind of like the two faces of our team – [Green] is the more solid type of player that gives you the same effort every night while [Wilson] is more representative of the up-and-down side of our team.”

With a total of five on the roster, Santa Barbara’s freshmen are also making important contributions to the squad. Forward Jordan Franey has been one of the surprises for the Gauchos at the post position, starting 11 games and becoming the team’s third leading scorer at 9.1 points per game behind Green and Wilson. Guard Ariana Gnekow has also been a standout first-year player for UCSB, particularly in her ability to bring hustle and effort off of the bench.

“We’ve seen some great hustle from the freshmen class this season,” French said. “We’ve gotten a great effort from [Gnekow] and [Franey]. Both have great hearts and are very solid. They’re just hardworking, bright and intelligent players.”

The preseason was anything but kind to the Gauchos, as they had a grueling nonconference schedule that was one of the most difficult in the nation. UCSB finished the preseason with a 4-7 record, which included a 69-45 loss to #18 Michigan State (12-3), a 72-66 loss to #13 Louisville (16-1), and a 105-44 thrashing at the hands of defending national champion and consensus #1 team in the country, Maryland (17-0). As conference play begins, the most important thing for UCSB will be to maintain a consistent effort should it want to claim its 12th straight regular season title.

“I’d say right now we’re a little disappointed in terms of where we want to be, but we want to continue to improve and be our best in March,” French said. “For us every game is important – every day is important. We just need to focus on bringing our best effort every day and I think what we can do to respect our competition in the Big West is to just bring our best every game.”