UCSB roared into the month of March like a lion.
The Gaucho baseball team won eight of its first nine games and finished the month with a 15-4 record, punctuated by wins over perennially strong programs like Mississippi State, Pepperdine, Arizona, Fresno State and UCLA. It also received its first national top-10 ranking since 1986.
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Santa Barbara is currently 19-5, the Gauchos’ second-best start in program history.
Coach Andrew Checketts credits part of the team’s success to leadership.
“They have started self policing and holding each other accountable on and off the field,” he said of the players. “It’s been fun to see the progression.”
The Gauchos have made great strides since Checketts was hired in June of 2011. In his second season, the team finished second in the Big West, received its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2001 and won a game in the regionals.
The success of last year has carried over to this season.
“On the field, we’ve been productive offensively, played timely defense and pitched well when we have had a lead,” he said.
Senior third baseman Joey Epperson, the team’s leading hitter with a .478 average, said among the qualities this Gaucho team possesses is resiliency and toughness.
“We got kicked around a little bit in the early season last year,” he recalled. “And we all say it took us a little while to find ourselves, but we found ourselves about the middle of the year and went on a run.
“There’s no better group of guys that I would want to go to battle with, or as Coach Checketts said, fight in a foxhole with. And these are the kind of guys you want in your corner. So it’s just a tough, tough, tough group. Nobody in this lineup will ever give up, nobody will ever die, and we’ll play hard and bring it every single day. And I think that makes us special.”
The college baseball season is usually 50-plus games packed into three months. The Gauchos hit a bump in their season during their Big West opening series against Hawaii, losing two of three.
Checketts called the results a “punch in the gut” to his team.
“As we get into the conference season, we are going to need to be better defensively in the infield, get more consistent starts on the mound and be able to hold people in the bullpen when we don’t have our main setup and closer available,” he said. “I think the team recognizes that and are working to get better. We hope that our daily effort and preparation will lead to improved execution.”
Coming into the season, Checketts recognized the team had good chemistry.
“With so many returners, we did notice it right away,” he said.
Besides Epperson, the Gauchos have key returnees like Robby Nesovic, Peter Maris, Woody Woodward, Cameron Newell, Greg Mahle, Tyler Kuresa, Justin Jacome, Austin Pettibone, Andrew Vasquez and Dylan Hecht.
“This past fall we had a core group returning that knew what to expect from the coaches and from each other. They’ve run with it and made it their own so far,” Checketts said. “There are always ups and downs during the season and having a group that can absorb blows and get back on their feet is valuable. Also, having a core group of guys that have a feel for the pulse of the team and can communicate with the coaches has proven to be important.”
After the two home losses to start conference, the Gauchos face the challenge of playing at No. 7-ranked Cal Poly and the host perennial power Cal State Fullerton the following weekend.
But Checketts said this Gaucho team has shown poise and handled adversity well. They have yet to lose back-to-back games this season.
“I think that’s evidenced in our record in one-run games (7-0),” he said. “We had a few key injuries (starting pitcher Pettibone, outfielder Luke Swensen and catcher Jackson Morrow) early and the team didn’t flinch or panic. Guys filled in where they were needed and performed fairly well.”