Defending CCS champions are loaded for another breakout year
Hollister – There won’t be any sneaking up on the competition this year and the San Benito softball team knows it.
Not after a record-breaking 29-3 season that culminated in the Haybalers first-ever Central Coast Section title and an end of the season ranking of No. 12 in the state.
“Last year, we had very low expectations so it was really easy to motivate the kids,” San Benito coach Scott Smith said. “This year they feel like they’re already successful. We’ve been preaching since Day 1 that last year was last year and means nothing. We snuck up on some teams last year because they didn’t know how good we were. This year there’s going to be a bulls-eye on our back.”
The ‘Balers will open their season at 3:45pm Thursday, traveling to take on the same Watsonville team that it beat 1-0 in last year’s Division I title game. They follow that up by playing in the Watsonville Tournament on Saturday, opening with a 9am game against Carmel.
“There’s going to be some pressure on the girls we’re not sure about,” Smith said of the early season play. “When we get five games in, we may have to look at it and make some changes.”
The best news for San Benito is that only three seniors (two starters) were lost from last year’s team.
Junior shortstop Elena Fata, who was named to the All-State Underclass Second Team by Cal-Hi Sports last season, returns to anchor the infield and spark the team from the leadoff hole. She batted .419 with one homer, 21 RBIs and 19 stolen bases last season.
“We know what we’re going to get from Elena, great defense and great offense,” Smith said.
As with any softball team, the key will be pitching. The ‘Balers welcome back Melissa Ibarra, who had a stellar 27-2 record as a freshman last year, including six straight shutouts to wrap up the season.
Junior Lizzy Gatto, who paced the team in home runs and RBIs last year, returns and should provide a big bat. She’ll be moving from the outfield to third base, although that move could prove to only be temporary if the ‘Balers end up needing her stellar glove in right field.
Sophomore JC Clayton, who moves from third to second base, is another well-rounded player who was third on the team in hits last year. Junior Rachel Maheu will patrol centerfield, junior Lindsey Clay should provide pop to the offense and senior Ashley Perreira will be a major key at the catcher position.
“She’s the rock,” Smith said of Perreira. “How she goes is how we go.”
One of the biggest keys, Smith said, is the production of Audra Brown, a senior who will take over first base in the absence of graduated all-league performer Kristen Archuleta.
“If she hits like we think she can, I think she’ll supply the power we lost with Kristen,” Smith said.
Two other seniors Smith is looking to step into starting roles in the outfield are Danielle Scibuola and Alyssa Ashford.
“All around I think we’ll just be a little more mature,” Smith said. “Obviously, playing the way we did last year and winning a lot of close games made us all more mature so I think we’ll be better than we were last year.”
While last season’s team set a school record for most wins, fewest losses and the first CCS title, there was one thing missing – a Tri-County Athletic League crown.
Notre Dame, the CCS Division III title winners, earn the league title with 11-1 record despite losing to San Benito in the league finale. The ‘Balers finished 10-2 in league play.
But with Notre Dame experiencing some key injuries – returning league MVP Lauren Schutzler broke her ankle during basketball season and is questionable to return this season – San Benito feels this may be the year.
“Every one of the girls knows what it would mean to win a league championship,” Smith said. “I feel it’s a strong possibility.”