HOOPS: Catching on and coming together

Baler guard Samantha Puentes dishes a pass up court during Friday's game against Greenfield in the Alisal Winter Jam.

Baler girls basketball team off to strong start despite crop of
new players

To say it’s been business as usual this season for the San Benito girls basketball team would be a bit myopic.

Sure, the Balers are off to another strong start at 6-2, with losses to Aptos and El Camino Fundamental of Sacramento, who combined have posted a 13-1 record this season.

And the Balers’ last game against Pacific Grove at the Alisal Winter Jam exhibited the team’s usual brand of inside-outside offense, with big post players in the paint and knock-down 3-point shooting guards along the perimeter, as well as its often irritating, borderline-annoying, turnover-inducing defense — all of which translated into an easy 59-21 victory and a fifth-place finish on Saturday.

But for however similar it appears to be on the surface to teams of years past, San Benito is still very much a team in development, still on the rise and coming together, still getting its varsity legs settled.

It’s a credit to the coaching staff, as well as returning varsity players, that the Balers have nevertheless jumped out to as quick a start as they have this year. But head coach David Kaplansky feels his team, with nine of its 14 players having never played at the varsity level before this year, and having lost its leading scorer and league MVP from a year ago, is still in the early stages of its season.

“We feel we have the players to be deeper than we were last year. It’s just a matter of the kids catching on,” said Kaplansky, who enters his fourth season at the helm for the Balers, and has compiled a 70-16 overall record the last three years, 31-5 in the Tri-County Athletic League.

With the amount of new bodies to this year’s team, though, Kaplansky actually likens this season to his first in 2007-08 — players getting to know coach, coach getting to know players, and development going both ways. It’s a different personnel mix this year, of course, but Kaplansky said he likes his team’s passion so far.

It’s just a matter of getting all 14 players on the same page, playing at the same level.

“We’re starting to understand the game at a varsity level, at a championship level,” said Kaplansky on Saturday, moments after the Balers posted one of their more convincing wins of the season against Pacific Grove.

“Today, we shot the ball well. But our flow, our communication with each other, the charge when you can feel the energy … today you could feel it,” Kaplansky added. “Today was nice. We still have a long ways to go, but it was nice to see the effort — each kid.”

Saturday’s win against the Breakers showcased all the positives that San Benito seeks this season, unlike the performance shown earlier in the tournament against Aptos, which defeated San Benito 47-40 last Thursday before winning its final two games to earn the Winter Jam title.

The Balers gave up too many easy baskets in that game, and, similar to its previous loss against El Camino Fundamental, didn’t play the team defense that San Benito has become known for — a team defense that often picks up the slack when the offense isn’t necessarily clicking every night.

“The past two games, like against Aptos, we just came out really slow and with no energy at all,” said returning point guard Erin Glasspool, who led the Balers with 19 points on Saturday, 15 of which were deposited from behind the arc. “We were not playing ‘Baler Basketball.’

“But today, I felt like we had a lot of energy.”

San Benito did, in fact, play energized on both ends against Pacific Grove, displaying a tough team defense on one end that kept the Breakers to single-digit point totals in each quarter, while also limiting turnovers on the other end that helped allow the Balers to ring up 53 points through the first three quarters of play.

And while there is still a lack of playing experience among the team members — something that will erode with each game — there is also plenty of individual ability, too.

With returning guards like Glasspool, Cyrena Salinas and Mari Vallejo, and returning post players like Ellie Burley and Nicole Rianda — not to mention Anzar transfer Kelsey Robledo, who deposited nearly 15 points per game last season for the Hawks — San Benito has the size and speed to compete in the TCAL against the likes of Gilroy and North Salinas. But it’s a matter of team development that will determine how much depth the Balers have this season — and perhaps even how far they will advance in the postseason — placing an added importance on each non-conference game leading up the TCAL opener on Jan. 4.

“They’re really important,” said Rianda, who is currently averaging a team-high 11 points per game for San Benito. “The El Camino game introduced the new girls to the varsity level — how hard to play and the expectations. The more games we have like that, the better we’ll be at the end of the season.

“But we need to rise to the occasion (as a team) and not put the responsibility on someone else.”

Already, the Balers have exhibited a more balanced scoring attack this year, and plan to enter league play with a similar approach. Unlike previous seasons, though, there is no reliance on one player, Glasspool said.

“We really have to fight for our games,” she added.

Saturday’s victory over Pacific Grove, despite being a lesser opponent, could be a key building block for the remainder of the season, though. It showed the Balers what can happen when, as Kaplansky said postgame in the locker room, 14 girls all play the same style, at the same level.

“It’s a progression. Everyone has to work hard to make everyone else better,” Rianda said. “Today, we came out with more fire. It was a big step forward, and if we can keep taking those steps forward, we’ll be good by the end of the season.”

Rianda, who had 11 points in Saturday’s win, later added, “The effort that each girl puts in is what the team is gonna get out of it.”

TEAM 1 2 3 4 F

SB 21 16 16 6 59

PG 8 4 5 4 21

San Benito (59): E. Glasspool 1 5 2-2 19, N. Rianda 3 0 5-6 11, E. Burley 1 0 0-0 2, C. Salinas 0 2 0-0 6, M. LePore 1 0 0-0 2, K. Robledo 3 0 2-2 8, O. Diaz 1 1 0-0 5, T. Fabing 1 0 0-0 2, C. Gutierrez 1 0 0-0 2, S. Puentes 0 0 2-2 2.

San Benito will host Westmont on Wednesday night at Hollister’s Mattson Gym. Tip-off is 7 p.m.

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