With a new coach at the helm, the UCSB women’s basketball team begins its season tonight with an exhibition game against Vanguard College at the Thunderdome.

The defending Big West regular season co-champion Gauchos, picked to finish second in the preseason Big West media poll, start the year coming off an eventful summer and are prepared to defend their title this season.

“I’m excited,” first-year Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “I know we still have a lot of work to do, but at the same time these kids have worked so hard so it’s time for them to get in front of the fans to show how much growth they’ve made.”

Despite no set lineup for the season or even for the game against Vanguard, this team welcomes back many key contributors from last season’s 19-13 team. Set to lead the Gauchos is last year’s leading scorer, senior guard Emilie Johnson, who was a first-team All-Big West selection and represented the U.S. in the Pan Am Games last month.

“I think we always have high expectations,” Johnson said. “We’re just excited for the new year. We’re all just really excited to be here and put on the uniform [tonight].”

After former Gaucho great Mekia Valentine graduated to the WNBA last spring, junior forward Sweets Underwood is expected to increase her role as last season’s second leading rebounder behind Valentine and third-best in the conference.

“I think that’s definitely going to be a role I have to fulfill this year,” Underwood said. “Just being aggressive on the boards, grabbing rebounds — I think that’s something we really need to emphasize.”

The offense will run at a much faster tempo this season with Mitchell’s new style of play, which will help improve upon the fifth-highest scoring offense Santa Barbara touted in the Big West last season.

“All of our post-players, we can run and get up and down the court,” Underwood said. “We want to be fast paced, defensively get some stops and just score in transition.”

UCSB also returns two very differently styled guards in senior Kelsey Adrian and sophomore Nicole Nesbit. Adrian’s outside shooting ability will be featured regularly, while Nesbit’s speed will help in the transition game.

“I think with Coach Mitch’s style, anybody can bring the ball up,” Johnson said. “We’re small this year, so we’re going to run in transition … just whoever has the ball bring it up and we’ll be a combo guard together.”

With no starting lineup currently set, Mitchell takes on a new approach to the lineup that may very well change as the season progresses.

“I’ll evaluate it from game to game,” Mitchell said. “I’m going to be one of those coaches that it will be earned in practice each week, day-to-day, and that’s who the starters will be.”

One thing that is apparent when watching the Gauchos practice is that they are prepared for the upcoming season and anxious for what they can accomplish this year.