Hoping to improve upon last season’s second-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament Regionals, the UCSB softball team expects its 14 returning letter winners and seven returning starters to be enough to propel it to the NCAA championships this year.

The Gauchos will open their 2007 season this weekend at the Campbell/Cartier Classic hosted by San Diego State, as they look to face five teams that each received a bid in last season’s NCAA tournament. Going head to head against teams like #6 Oregon State and #10 Cal, UCSB hopes its strong nonconference schedule will give the team enough experience against top-ranked opponents to help it become the best in the Big West conference. Besides the five teams this weekend, Santa Barbara will face a total of 12 teams this season that made it to the Big Dance last season, seven of which are ranked in the USA Today/NFCA Preseason Top-25 Poll.

Experience will be a key component for Santa Barbara this season, with four returning seniors including pitcher Jennifer Davis, first baseman Jessica Hejna, shortstop Brittany Putich and outfielder Liz Walters leading the team. While Hejna will switch from outfield to first base this year to fill holes in the infield, Putich will return at shortstop, a position in which she has garnered All-Big West honors twice in her career.

Supporting the seniors on the field, sophomore second baseman Christine Ramos, who received All-Big West Second Team honors last season, and junior outfielder/third baseman Danielle Meyers, who grabbed an honorable mention, will anchor the Gauchos’ stellar infield and provide the power behind the plate to keep Gaucho pitchers happy.

Santa Barbara will look for Head Coach Kristy Schroeder, who will begin her sixth season with the Gauchos, to lead the team into its third NCAA tournament appearance in the last four years. Since Schroeder took over the helm of the Gauchos, she has posted a 143-133 overall record and turned the team from the mediocrity of the conference to one of the best squads in the nation.

The Gauchos also found an abundance of new talent in the offseason, focusing especially on strengthening its pitching staff. After signing freshman pitchers Lindsay Correa and MeLinda Matsumoto to national letters of intent, Santa Barbara hopes its experience can rub off quickly on the young guns.

Starting today at 4:30 p.m., the Gauchos will kick off their 2007 season against Kansas, followed by a double header tomorrow against the #23 University of Massachusetts and San Diego State. Rounding out the long weekend, Santa Barbara will face Cal on Saturday before taking on Oregon State on Sunday.

Kansas will likely start senior All-Big 12 selection pitcher Kassie Humphreys – who threw for a 19-17 record with a 1.19 ERA – in an attempt to grab their first-ever win from the Gauchos. Santa Barbara holds a 2-0 all-time record against the Jayhawks, beating them 2-1 in last season’s Palm Springs Invitational.