The UCSB softball team is off to a great start this season at 8-2, and will be looking to continue its early success this weekend in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. It will need to do so in upset fashion, however, as two of the four games the Gauchos play this weekend are against undefeated top five teams in No. 2 Oklahoma and No. 4 Tennessee.

UCSB opens up its weekend on Friday against Oklahoma (10-0), and although the Gauchos have started off the season solid offensively, they have not seen a pitching lineup anywhere near the talent level of the Sooners’. Boasting the arms of the last two Big 12 Pitcher of the Week winners in Keilani Ricketts and , Oklahoma is a nightmare opponent for any team it faces.

Last week against No. 8 Missouri, the only ranked team UCSB has faced this season, the Gauchos were handed their only two losses of the season in blowout fashion. Despite the poor performances, the team has used last weekend as a positive learning experience.

“When we play [ranked teams], we just need to make sure we don’t give up any extra bases,” Head Coach Brie Galiciano said. “We play those caliber teams [this] weekend and just by playing them [last] weekend we know what things we have to work on going into the [Mary Nutter Collegiate] Classic.”

On Saturday, UCSB will play against BYU (4-6), but the majority of their preparation on that day will be for its night game against Tennessee (10-0). Another top team with strong pitching, led by Ellen Renfroe, the Volunteers will be another severe challenge for the young Gauchos’ squad. Renfroe has allowed only 13 runs in 10 starts, and Cheyenne Tarango leads the offense with 14 RBI on 13 hits this season along with a .500 batting average.

The Gauchos will close their weekend out against Nevada (5-5), a team off to a hot start to the season offensively and coming off a big win against No. 20 Hawaii last weekend.

Tough opponents this weekend aside, the Gauchos still know that they stand atop the Big West with the best overall record, and they like the solid team performances thus far in the season.

“We feel great about where we are,” freshman catcher Sami Stark said. “I feel like we’re a really cohesive team, especially with all the new people coming in, the older girls and all the returners did a really good job of welcoming us in and we really work well as a group.”

Of the relatively small number of “older girls” that returned to the team this year, senior shortstop Keilani Jennings is leading the way offensively for the Gauchos. She leads the team with 14 RBI and four home runs, while hitting with a team high .438 batting average.

Outfielder Jessica Soria, the only other senior on the team, leads UCSB with nine runs this season. With the veterans leading the way, it isn’t hard to see why the team has come together so easily despite its numerous younger players.

“They’re doing a great job. They’re gelling together well, they’re rolling with the punches,” Galiciano said. “It’s just when things aren’t necessarily going their way they find a way to pull together, and like in [last weekend’s games], pull together and find a way to pull out the ‘W.’”

When asked what the Gauchos had to do to possibly beat the kind of high-caliber teams that dominated them last week, Stark said, “Just play big. Just play like we can. Just hit the ball hard, and play big on defense.”

UCSB plays Oklahoma at 3:30 p.m. on Friday, BYU at 2:30 p.m., Tennessee at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday and Nevada at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.

A version of this article appeared on page 4 of February 22nd 2013′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.
Photo by Mark Brocher/Daily Nexus.