Entering last season’s Big West Tournament with a winning record for the second consecutive season, UCSB women’s water polo believed it had the opportunity to do something special. However, the team barely squeaked by in the first round with a 15-14 win over Long Beach State, before losing to Cal State Northridge 11-5 and 7-5 to Pacific in the third-place game.

[media-credit name=”Daily Nexus File Photo” align=”alignleft” width=”250″][/media-credit]“I feel like we were disappointed to have lost the semifinal match,” Head Coach Wolf Wigo said. “I’m not really sure why we didn’t win [the third-place game], but I don’t put too much stock in it.”

UCSB ended the 2010 regular season at 17-10, posting a 3-2 record in conference. However, eight of the team’s losses came on the road. This season, UCSB will host the Big West Tournament, where the winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship.

“It’s just something that’s exciting,” Wigo said. “It’s a pretty even conference and all the teams are excited to get that bid.”

Before the Gauchos get to the tournament, they will need to fill the hole left by center Lizzie Rouleau, who racked up 10 multi-goal games last season and graduated 10th on UCSB’s all time scoring list with 101 career goals. Last season, she earned First Team All Big West honors for the second time.

Luckily for the Gauchos, they still have senior utility Christie Clark for one more season. Clark’s 116 career goals put her in seventh on the Gaucho all-time list. She was also awarded Second Team All Big West honors last season.

“My confidence has been growing,” Clark said. “I can see myself stepping up into [Rouleau’s] role.”

According to Wigo, Clark is one of Santa Barbara’s best offensive weapons on a team built around its defense. Clark believes that this focus on defense has helped her become the player she is.

“[Defense] definitely teaches you more discipline,” Clark said. “In high school I came from a more offensive system. It holds you back a little more and balances you out.”

Senior utility Kathryn Nelson, who led the team last season with 41 steals and 13 field blocks, says that much of her role is to help the younger members of the team learn Wigo’s intricate defense. Still, the presence of sophomore goalkeeper Ruth Milne, who recorded 17 saves in the first-round win against Long Beach, relieves some of the pressure from the rest of the defense. Despite missing three games in her freshman year, Milne set a single-season school record with 275 saves — the most by a Gaucho since 1999 — and recorded double-digit saves in 14 games to earn an Honorable Mention All-Big West accolade.

“It’s a peace of mind knowing that she’s behind you,” Nelson said. “She’s phenomenal and I’m sure she’s going to be even better this season.”

UCSB’s first three matches are against easier opponents, giving Wigo a chance to see how his team will come together and which players step up into their roles.

“[The games are] an opportunity for us to spread some playing time around and see who’s performing,” he said. “Once we get into the more important games we’ll know who’s ready to come off the bench.”

This afternoon, the Gauchos travel to CSU Monterey Bay for their first game, set to start at 3:30 p.m. While Wigo believes his squad is more talented than the Sea Otters, he believes their physicality will give the Gauchos a good first test.