Fresh off a manhandling of cross-town Westmont College this past Tuesday, the UC Santa Barbara baseball team will face one of their toughest tests of the season as they square off against USC this weekend in a three-game set. Though the Gauchos (24-11 overall, 6-3 in the Big West) are fairing much better than the Trojans (19-16, 6-6 Pacific 10) in their respective conference, Southern California is red hot entering Friday afternoon’s game, having won eight of their last 10, including triumphs over #8 California and the Big West’s own #15 Cal State Fullerton in their most recent contest.

“From here on out, our schedule is going to keep getting tougher, starting this weekend against USC,” Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “They were struggling earlier this season, but have hit their stride now.”

In their two meetings last season, USC won a close one 7-5 at home before thumping UCSB on the road at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium 8-1 in one of the final games of the season. Despite their shortcomings against the Trojans last year in a forgettable 2007 campaign, the Gauchos are entering this weekend’s series with optimism, as they have a rejuvenated roster filled with new and more seasoned players itching to show what they are made of against a perennial Pac-10 power.

“We have a completely different team, and so do they,” Brontsema said. “It’ll be a whole new deal because we won’t be facing them mid-week, meaning we will see their top-of-the-line starters.”

Santa Barbara will be throwing out a few top-of-the-line starters of their own, as the “Big 3” of sophomore Mike Ford (4-2, 2.58 E.R.A.), freshman Mario Hollands (3-2, 3.33 E.R.A.) and senior Chuck Huggins (6-1, 4.12 E.R.A.) will start in order Friday through Sunday looking to shut down a potent Southern California offense. Ford was dealing for the Gauchos in his last start, going eight strong innings while striking out five to account for the team’s only win against visiting UC Davis.

“I think every member of our pitching staff is going to play an important role, and I have faith that any of our guys getting the ball can answer the call,” Pitching Coach Tom Myers said.

The Gaucho relievers, though not overly impressive in last weekend’s series against the Aggies, came through with one of their best performances against Westmont on Tuesday, giving up only one combined hit in seven innings of work.

“We’re going to try and get our starters to go as deep into the games as possible, but I’m sure the bullpen will do a good job when called upon,” freshman reliever Jesse Meaux said.

If the pitching cannot get it done for Santa Barbara, the offense should be able to pick up the slack. Senior left fielder Mike Zuanich had arguably his best collegiate game at the plate on Tuesday, belting three home runs and six RBI. Sophomore infielder Gunnar Terhune, manning second base in the place of injured sophomore second baseman/shortstop Matt Valaika while battling a sore arm of his own, has been playing out of his mind in his past two starts, going nine-for-12 with five runs and a stolen base. The Gaucho lineup should also benefit from the return of junior right fielder John DeAlba, who is in line to rejoin the starting line-up at some point this weekend.

“It doesn’t matter whether we’re playing against the Pac-10 or a Big West foe,” Myers said. “Against any team from Westmont to USC, you can expect mental and physical intensity for nine innings.”

Friday’s game kicks off at 2 p.m. at CU Stadium before UCSB hits the road to play Saturday’s 1 p.m. game at USC, returning home to play Sunday’s finale at 1 p.m. All games can be heard live on