Tennis: Balers all about development

Senior Chris Godbout has become the No. 1 singles player for the Balers.

Hollister has never been a tennis town, but San Benito High boys tennis coach Rick Espino is looking to make it more tennis-friendly. Espino, who is also the longtime assistant girls tennis coach at the school, has plenty of coaching experience and the wherewithal to model what makes a thriving tennis community click: A program that allows players to compete year-round.
“I want to create a Baler tennis program and give kids more opportunities to play all year,” he said. “I want to keep them interested in tennis.”
The Haybalers have been practicing at Ridgemark, but Espino was hoping the new tennis courts on campus would be suitable to play on by next week at the latest. Espino acknowledged that this year would be a rebuilding year, as everyone outside the team’s top three players have little to no playing experience.
“The three returners are experienced, but the other nine have never played tennis or picked up a racket before,” Espino said. “It’ll be a tough battle, but with hard work we’ll be able to hold our own.”
The singles lineup includes senior Chris Godbout at the top spot, junior Sean McConnell at No. 2, junior Jack Stegeman at No. 3 and senior Israel Alvarez at the No. 4 slot. Players in the doubles lineup include Adrian Acevedo, Daniel Bernal, Kyler Mellor, Alex Ramirez, Kevin Hernandez and Adrian Garcia.
Espino said he has high hopes for Godbout, a senior who is an all-around solid player.
“Chris has got good strokes, great speed and he’s coming into his own,” Espino said. “He’s our team captain, and if he settles in, I believe he can be effective and win some matches.”
Godbout is the team’s only returning singles player, McConnell and Stegemen played doubles last season and Alvarez is in his first year of playing the game.
“Sean’s strength is his groundstrokes,” Espino said. “He just needs more confidence, and I believe with more experience he’ll be a stronger singles player. Jack is also looking to find confidence on the singles court, and he’s a lefty who is going to improve with more practice and game experience.”
Espino said Alvarez is quick and gets everything back, which can frustrate opponents into mistakes.
“I have high hopes for Israel,” Espino said.
The team has challenge matches every Friday, which allow players the ability to move up the ladder. Espino expects his singles lineup to stay pretty much the same all season, but his doubles lineup will be in flux because of the players’ inexperience.
Outside of the top three players, Espino is literally teaching the team the fundamentals of the game. And since Espino is passionate about the sport, he’s having a blast doing it.
“I am teaching beginning tennis to the varsity,” he said. “Some people might think that’s tough, but for me it’s a huge joy to watch them improve. It’s rewarding to see their face light up when they hit a good ball or hit a good serve because they’re truly beginners. I told them if they play with heart and speed, they’ll win some matches. I’m teaching them footwork and how to hold the racket, but they’re putting it together.”
That’s not just coach-speak or unfounded optimism—it’s a reality. San Benito entered the week with a 2-1 record, with wins over Alisal and North Salinas and a loss to Alvarez.
“They might not have the skills yet, but boy do they give it their all,” Espino said. “I’m real impressed with how they’re growing. That’s something good they have going for them.”
Espino would love nothing more than to have the school’s tennis players make a greater commitment to the sport on a year-round basis. If that happens, the Balers can take the next step in becoming a league power.
Espino said it was a positive that the tennis courts at Dunne Park were repaved, for the simple fact that they are the only courts in town for public use. And having new courts on campus could attract more athletes to the sport.

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