The #70 Gaucho men’s tennis team began Big West play 1-1 after beating UC Riverside 6-1 on Saturday and losing to UC Irvine 4-3 on Sunday. While the Gauchos lost 6-1 to the Anteaters last season before beating them in the Big West Championships in Indian Wells last April, the fact that the Gauchos led at various points throughout the match made the loss more difficult to swallow for Gaucho Head Coach Marty Davis.

“We fully expected to win that match,” Davis said. “We were ahead quite often.”

In college tennis, the team that wins at least two of three doubles matches earns a doubles point that gets tallied in the total for the match. A win in each of the six singles matches counts as a full point for a player’s team.

The Gauchos (3-4 overall) won the doubles point against Riverside but lost the point to the Anteaters on Sunday. In Sunday’s match, Davis claims that his squad was up 6-4 on one doubles court and 5-3 on another before the Gauchos lost both 8-6. In singles, UCSB won five of six matches against Riverside and split the courts 3-3 against Irvine.

“We got off to really good starts on all courts against Irvine, but we just didn’t finish them off,” senior team captain Josh Finkelstein said. “We did look a lot better by this time than last year, but we thought the Big West would be a breeze. That’s not the case. We’re going to have to work hard.”

Finkelstein, who starts when healthy, sat out both Big West matches with tendonitis in his hand. He practiced on Tuesday, but his status for this weekend’s road trip remains questionable. Sophomore Mathieu Forget returned to the lineup on Sunday after hurting his Achilles tendon before the Gauchos’ 4-3 win over Utah on Feb. 7. He replaced junior Philip Therp, who started — and lost — his first singles match in over a year. Plagued by injuries since last season, Therp won the 2008 Big West Player of the Year.

“We’re trying to fast track [Therp] right now. He’s healthy, just not very fit,” Davis said. “We’re still hopeful to get him back in the singles lineup on a regular basis.”

Gaucho senior Scott Hohenstein is also recovering from a wrist injury. With four starters out of the lineup at one point, both Davis and Finkelstein are now more optimistic about the team’s health.

“We’re healthier all the way around,” Davis said.

The team is also blessed with a recruiting class of three freshmen who have consistently stepped up in singles play. Freshman Lucas Sudow earned Big West Player of the Week honors for the weekend of Feb. 7, and is now 6-0 in singles play.

“Lucas has got an all-around game.” Finkelstein said. “He doesn’t really have a weakness, he has a great backhand and a great forehand, [he’s] able to volley and can do pretty much anything. He turned out to be a great player.”]

Freshmen Max Glenn and Benjamin Recknagel have also contributed this season at the bottom of the singles order, where the Gauchos remain undefeated in the sixth singles slot.

“We’re pretty pleased with our recruiting class top to bottom,” Davis said. “I don’t know who’s at the top [of the class]. What I’d like to see is more production from the top half of the lineup.”

UCSB plays University of San Diego on Saturday and #54 San Diego State on Sunday, thus continuing their grueling non-conference schedule against ranked opponents.

“Both those matches are going to be tough for us,” Finkelstein said. “We’re going to have to really dig deep and try to get two more wins. This is [probably] the toughest schedule I’ve seen since I’ve been here, but we need to win these ranked games if we want to continue to be ranked.”

The Gauchos’ win against Utah last weekend pushed the team into the national rankings. While the Gauchos can earn a NCAA tournament berth by winning the Big West Championships in April, a higher ranking by the end of the season could improve the Gauchos’ chances at earning a higher seed so they do not have to play too difficult a team in the first round. Last year, for instance, the Gauchos played top-seeded USC and lost 4-0 in the first round of the tournament.

UCSB plays its first home match Feb. 27 against UC Davis, who upset Pacific in its first conference game of the year.