After the shocker came the Shockers, and UCSB sports fans started to feel a little better about things.
The shocker was the Gauchos’ dreadful 31-point defeat at the hands of Cal Poly in the opening game of the Big West men’s basketball tournament last Thursday. It was hardly the most mystifying event in a week that a huge airliner vanished, but it was a head-scratcher nonetheless. Poly’s subsequent run to the championship made UCSB’s stumble only slightly less painful. (“Hey, we lost to the 68th seed in the NCAA tournament.”) The season is best remembered by the Gauchos’ rout of the Runnin’ Rebels in Las Vegas and their home victories over Cal and UC Irvine, two occasions when they were the aggressors from the opening tip to the final horn.
The next day, it was apparent the sky had not fallen on Gaucholand. The weekend baseball series between UCSB and the Wichita State Shockers at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium was played in bright sunshine. The Gauchos took the opener, 2-1, behind the brilliant pitching of sophomore Justin Jacome. His effort was appreciated even more on Saturday, when the Shockers banged out 17 hits in a 16-5 victory. The Gauchos rallied to win the rubber match Sunday, 3-2. That was the 13th consecutive series that they have either won or tied.
“We’re resilient,” UCSB coach Andrew Checketts said. “That’s the best team we faced. After getting bludgeoned, beat up really bad, the guys showed they have a short memory.”
With a 13-3 record, the Gauchos are getting noticed. They are ranked in the top 20 by two national publications, Collegiate Baseball (15th) and Baseball America (19th).
Sunday’s game came to a dramatic conclusion. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Billy Fredrick drove in the winning run on a double that one-hopped the fence in right field. Fredrick, a freshman from Santa Clarita, has had three collegiate at-bats, all as a pinch hitter. The results: a triple, a single, and a double. He is a home run away from beginning his career with the cycle. It may not be as improbable as a perfect NCAA basketball bracket, but it’s still an odds-defying prospect.
“I was a little nervous,” said Fredrick, whose walk-off double came on a 3-1 pitch. “The way my team had been battling the whole game, I didn’t want to let them down. [Wichita State] knocked us down, and we wanted to get up and punch them back. I was lucky to get a pitch I liked.”
Sophomore southpaw Domenic Mazza pitched into the seventh inning after giving up two early runs to Wichita State, and junior Greg Mahle picked up the victory in relief. Joey Epperson’s solo home run in the fifth inning — extending his hitting streak to 21 games — ignited UCSB’s comeback. The senior outfielder, batting leadoff for the Gauchos, is hitting at a .484 clip.
Epperson came to UCSB from Santa Barbara City College last season. He hit his stride as a Division 1 player at the same time the Gauchos made their run into the NCAA tournament. “We went from uncertainty to realizing that we’re right up there with the best of them,” Epperson said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Every game, every practice, we have to show up.”
The Gauchos’ diligence showed in the sacrifice bunts executed by two of their sluggers, Tyler Kuresa and Robby Nesovic. Kuresa, who has four home runs, advanced Woody Woodward to third, from where he scored the tying run on a wild pitch in the sixth inning. After Andrew Calica led off the ninth with a single, Nesovic bunted him to second. He was able to race home after Fredrick’s blast landed behind the right fielder.
The Gauchos play a four-game series this weekend (March 21-23) — including a Saturday double-header — against Wagner College from Staten Island, N.Y., and the following weekend Hawai‘i comes into Uyesaka Stadium to open the Big West Conference season.
HAPPY HOOPSTERS: “March Sadness” is the cliché whenever a basketball team falters in the postseason, but it was hard to find disappointed losers last Sunday at the 14th annual Special Olympics Regional Basketball Tournament. Thirty-eight teams from San Luis Obispo to Burbank competed in the daylong event, fully utilizing the six courts inside UCSB’s Thunderdome. Shouts and cheers punctuated the clamor of floor play whenever a shot found the hoop. On at least one occasion, an otherwise spectacular layup was waived off by the referee because a young man made it at his opponent’s end. A teachable moment.
“This is more fun than running a DUI check,” said Sheriff’s Lieutenant Butch Arnoldi, a longtime supporter of Special Olympics. His duty was to drape medals around the smiling — and sometimes serious — faces of the players after they completed their three games in different divisions. Gold, silver, and bronze were equally cherished.
The host organization, Special Olympics of Santa Barbara County, mustered dozens of volunteers to make the big event a success. They should be proud.
DONS RALLY: Santa Barbara High was one of the last teams standing as the CIF State Girls Basketball Championships entered the regional semifinals this week. It was a wild scene in J.R. Richards Gym last Saturday when the Dons, trailing by eight points at halftime, outscored La Cañada 40-20 in the second half to secure a 55-43 victory. Santa Barbara’s furious defensive pressure rattled the visitors in the third quarter, and Jada Howard’s high-arching three-point shots kept them at bay in the fourth.
BIG SHOTS: Noah Bryant entered some rarefied territory this month when USC made the Carpinteria High grad a Heritage Award recipient — equivalent to entering the Trojan track-and-field hall of fame. Bryant was the 2007 NCAA champion and set the school record in the shot put (67′5½″). He is currently coaching at Texas A&M. … The latest shot-put standout to emerge from these parts is Dos Pueblos High senior Stamatia Scarvelis. She had a stellar junior year, in which she won her second state championship and claimed the gold medal at the Pan-American Junior Games. Scarvelis, who is committed to UCLA, pushed her all-time best to 53′8¼″ at in indoor meet in Idaho last month. She will compete in both the shot and discus on Saturday, March 22, at the Santa Barbara Easter Relays at SBCC’s La Playa Stadium.
For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports.