Volleyball: With senior leadership, Balers have rising expectations

Ellie Burley spikes the ball as Marissa Espino prepares to block during a drill at practice Friday.

Coming off a second-place finish last fall in the final year of the Tri-County Athletic League, the San Benito High girls volleyball team brings seven returning seniors and high expectations into the new year in the Monterey Bay League.

It’s a roster with a mix of the old and new, as San Benito will open with a freshman on the varsity squad, while bringing back senior captains Raelynn Heredia, Ellie Burley and Melyssa Martinez.

“Well, we do have a lot of seniors and just about everyone played club this year,” head coach Dean Askanas said. “People are coming in and we are further ahead than we’ve been at this time of the year in a while, just because everyone has been playing for a while. We’ve had a good summer and I think we have a nice mix of offense and defense. So I have high hopes.”

So far – through only a few weeks of practice preparing for Saturday’s Milpitas Spikefest – the team is playing well together.

“We just have to go in there and play our best,” Heredia said. “Our goal is probably to keep each other going. A couple of years in the past, we had a hard time staying together as a team. This year, I want to stay together as a team.”

With some of the team’s youth, that’s exactly what Askanas wants to see early in the season.

“We have some younger girls, too, and those older girls will help them push along,” he said.

One of those newly found leaders, Erica Chapa, will serve as a bridge between the experienced and the inexperienced. The junior was named a team captain this summer because of her dramatic improvements over the past year, Askanas said. Chapa, the only non-senior captain, continues to impress and improve.

“She has really developed,” Askanas said. “She has played all off-season. She has become a much stronger hitter. She has become a very good defensive player and a better server. She is playing all around and she is going to be one of the major players. We will have to rely on her a lot.”

Playing alongside Burley – and last year with Katherine Breger – Chapa plans to use the Balers’ past hitters as inspiration, she said.

“I need to use them as a model and do what they do,” she said. “I want to take their aggressiveness and take it on the court. I don’t want to stick out as a junior, I want to be one of the players. I don’t want to be known as a junior.”

With that leadership – including the return of first-team all-leaguer Heredia – San Benito expects to be battling for a league title again.

“I want to take league,” Martinez said. “Last year, it was a good year – we took second but we tied for third place. And you know, I want to take league and I want to make it the best year that I’ve had here. There are some new girls on this team but I think we all work well together.”

She continued: “We should be a good team. We should work together great and take home a lot of wins.”

Because of the team’s leadership, the winning vibes spread throughout the Balers and Askanas.

“I think we are going to do good,” Burley said. “I hope we win league but it’s a big step. It’s a new league. There is new people and we don’t know what to expect. I expect to do good but I don’t know how good.”

The high expectations stem from entering the new year with fewer issues and more players that can be used all over the court.

“Last year, we had a lot of holes. This year, we’ve plugged up a lot of holes,” Askanas said. “This year, I don’t think we have any glaring holes. We are well balanced.”

He continued: “I think there is a more uniform depth. There is better depth all the way around. The strength is our depth.”

The biggest question mark, though, will be the league, which will add Monte Vista Christian, Watsonville and Seaside. But it will make league play more exciting and better.

“In the last several years, with the other three teams, you looked at those as automatic wins,” Askanas said. “Now there is a question mark there. We don’t know how good those other teams are. It could bring a lot of intensity to the league. It can bring a lot more interest into each match.”

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