Picked to finish third in the Big West according to the preseason coaches’ poll, UCSB softball heads to Tempe, Ariz., this weekend to kick off the 2009 campaign at the Kajikawa Classic against marquee schools like Oregon, Penn State and Arizona. The Kajikawa Classic is one of four invitationals the Gauchos will attend before setting foot on Campus Diamond, a reunion scheduled for March 11.

Santa Barbara, a team that finished second in the Big West last year but was bizarrely snubbed from postseason play, has all the pieces in place to be among the Big West elite once more. Offensively, UCSB retains the services of Big West Field Player of the Year Tiffany Wright, who in her junior year proved to be one of the most consistent hitters in the conference. The senior outfielder batted a remarkable .447 in conference games, adding 40 RBI and 15 doubles (a school record) for the year. The First Team All-Big West honoree posted a pristine 1.000 fielding percentage in conference play as well as a .947 slugging percentage, both team highs. With the loss of Tisha Duran, UCSB will need Wright to produce another standout year at the plate if they are to contend, but she will have help. Infielders Christine Ramos, Jessica Ziegler and Jessica Beristianos return to bolster the Gauchos’ lineup, a trio that combined for 49 RBI off of exactly 150 hits.

Even with an experienced, proven offense, UCSB’s strength might very well be their defense. The senior hurler Tami Weston returns to the mound after going 11-6 and posting a team-high 3.55 ERA in 2008. Sophomores Melinda Matsumoto and Lindsay Correa will also get serious playing time after cutting their teeth as freshman starters. Correa led UCSB with 87 strikeouts, while Matsumoto saw a team-high 134.2 innings pitched. Behind the plate, however, lies a bit more uncertainty. While junior Kelsey Anderson started 24 games in 2008 and batted .263, Head Coach Brie Galicinao might turn the starting job over to standout freshman Lainey DePompa, a three-time First Team All-Pacific League selection out of Crescenta Valley High School.

UCSB will kick off the 2009 regular season against an Oregon squad fresh off its first 35-win season under Head Coach Kathy Arendsen. The Ducks have received votes in both the NFCA and USA Softball polls, and sport one of the country’s premier outfielders in junior Neena Bryant, a 2008 preseason USA Softball Player of the Year candidate. After Oregon, the Gauchos finish the day against Wichita State, with McNeese State, Wagner, Penn State and Arizona waiting on Saturday and Sunday.