LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- After leading UC San Diego to the Division II softball championship last year, Camille Gaito and Kris “Ski” Lesovsky had a laugh over the notion of going out on top.

“We joked that we were going to retire as juniors,” Gaito said. “(We joked) that we couldn’t top this.”

There were long, difficult stretches this season, when it seemed Gaito would be proven painfully accurate, that the Tritons would be anywhere but set to begin play in the Division II Softball Championship tournament against Valdosta State.

We knew something had to change. At the CCAA tournament everything did change
-- UC San Diego head coach Patti Gerckens

With most of its championship team returning, UC San Diego started the season ranked No. 1. But, even Gaito admitted it was a ranking based on the past, not this team’s potential.

By the first of April, the Tritons dropped to 29-13 and out of the top 25 after a frustrating 1-0 loss to 8-24 Western Washington. A series win against California Collegiate Athletic Association foe Sonoma State followed, but then came a season-ending four-game sweep by CCAA co-champion Cal State Monterey Bay to finish fourth in the conference standings.

That was the low point, coach Patti Gerckens figured.

What she couldn’t have known was it was also a turning point.

“We knew something had to change,” Gerckens said. “At the CCAA Tournament, everything did change. We told them it was a new season, we told them to check their baggage at the regular season, it was done, and now we had to move on. That was really the turning point for us.

“How we played at the CCAA Tournament, that’s when I felt this could be done.”

It was in that tournament that the Tritons finally started to display championship mettle.

Forced into a winner-take-all showdown with another loss to Cal State Monterey Bay, UC San Diego rallied for four runs in its final two at bats to win its first CCAA tournament title.

Despite earning an automatic NCAA berth, UC San Diego still merited nothing better than a No. 6 seed of eight teams in the NCAA West Regional. The Tritons lost their opening game but stormed back with four consecutive wins, including a pair of win-or-go-home showdowns with Dixie State.

In the Super Regional with Cal State Dominguez Hills the Tritons were thrust into a familiar position when they lost the best-of-three opener 4-3. But they clawed out a pair of 1-0 nail biters to become the only team from last year’s final eight to return.

“We’ve had a lot of practice this year coming off of losses,” Lesovsky said, who leads the Tritons with a .377 average. “We’ve had a lot of team meetings about chemistry and finally it juts clicked, that we were going to win no matter what.”

“I think at this point we’ve found our niche with it just being a different year and taking a different approach to winning this year,” Gaito said, the Tritons’ ace with a 29-10 record and a 1.17 ERA.

“It definitely was harder this year. But I think I want it more this year.”

After a tough conference schedule, a tough conference tournament and two rugged regionals, naturally the challenges don’t get any easier for UC San Diego (41-21) now being in the championship rounds.

The next mountain in the path is Valdosta State on Wednesday, which owns the NCAA’s best record at 52-4. The Tritons are looking to be the first team to win two championships in a row since California (Pa.) in 1998.

“I’m so proud of them because it wasn’t the most consistent season,” Gerckens said. “We struggled at times with some things, finding our chemistry. Most of our team is back, but that doesn’t mean anything. Chemistry has so much to do with it.

“We talk about family and what that takes and having each other’s back. To finally have that click at the end of the season, as a coach that’s what you dream about.”