Champion, Ventura a dynamic combination

The Balers' Connor Champion, left, and Brennan Ventura are developing into standout players.

Brennan Ventura and Connor Champion have known each other for five years. They played on the same club basketball team before making the transition to volleyball upon entering high school. It’s a journey that keeps on getting better, as both players have made dramatic improvements since earning spots on the varsity team this season.

Champion, a junior middle blocker, and Ventura, a sophomore setter, are two of the key reasons why San Benito High could be in contention for a top-three finish in the Monterey Bay League next season. Champion has made steady strides in every phase of the game, and Ventura has become the starting setter as the team recently switched from a 6-2 offense to a 5-1.

That means Ventura plays in all six rotations, which has made him more excited for the game.

“It’s really cool playing the 5-1,” he said. “I can dump the ball and trick the outside blockers. I can run cool plays and set the back row and middle as well.”

Both Champion and Ventura credit the coaching staff for helping them improve in a short amount of time. Balers coach Dave Ventura—Brennan’s dad—hired quality assistants in Jesse Esqueda, Adrian Masoni and Gabe Ventura, Brennan’s older brother. Masoni has helped the 6-foot-1, 180-pound Champion with all the little details necessary to become a better player.

“Coach Masoni has helped me a lot with my footwork and the spacing and positioning of my hands,” Champion said. “They’ve all got to be in the perfect spot to make a difference.”

Champion has put in extra practice time this season, in the hopes of accelerating his game on a upward trajectory. The hard work has paid off in a tangible way.

“I’ve been doing things in my all-around game that I haven’t done before,” he said. “I’m passing, hitting and blocking better than before.”

Brennan Ventura has noticed the growth in his teammate’s game as well.

“It’s exciting to see him get more polished,” Ventura said. “To see how far he’s come shows the type of athlete he is and the dedication he has for the sport. He’s really one of the best players on the team.”

The same thing could be said of Ventura, who credits Esqueda, Masoni and his older brother for helping him develop into an all-around player. The 5-9, 120-pound Ventura grew up playing with Gabe, who was a big-time hitter as a senior on the team in 2015.

“Growing up he taught me a lot of stuff,” Brennan said. “I learned a lot from him.”

Champion and Ventura said one the highlights of their season was a three-game loss to Christopher on April 13.

“I had a lot of aces and a good amount of kills, too,” Champion said. “It was amazing.”

Said Ventura: “It was the first time we were playing the 5-1, and it’s an experience I really liked and enjoyed. Being able to set more is great.”

Champion and Ventura played a number of 1-on-1 games in basketball when they first met, and they still play on occasion before the start of a volleyball practice. Champion clearly relishes the fact that he has won the majority of the games.

“I tower over him, but yeah, I’m sure he’s won some games against me,” Champion said.

Ventura didn’t quite see the series as being one-sided as Champion did, only acknowledging that Champion’s height made the ultimate difference in their 1-on-1 contests. However, Ventura said he was a far superior ball-handler as a point guard and was superior in other aspects of the game as well.

Masoni has been particularly proud of both players, noting their willingness to be coached and taking well to instruction. Moreover, Champion and Ventura have displayed a work ethic that is the best of all building blocks for a program looking to recapture past glory—an indefatigable work ethic.

“There are a lot of practices, voluntary workouts and open gyms, and those two kids don’t miss one,” said Masoni, who was a sophomore when San Benito launched its first-ever boys volleyball team in 1997. “It’s refreshing as a coach to have players like that on your team.”

Because of all the extra time Champion and Ventura have put in practicing together, they’ve developed a chemistry and rapport on the court.

“They trust one another,” Masoni said. “Connor has been Brennan’s go-to option when we need a point, and Connor can trust that the set will be there. If we can continue to nurture that relationship with planned workouts, we have a team that I think can really blossom next year.”

As the new setter of the team, Ventura acts as the quarterback of the squad. He touches the ball on virtually every possession, keeps his teammates communicating and has to make decisions in rapid-fire fashion.

“In a 5-1 offense there is no sitting back as the setter,” Masoni said. “You’re the man. For him not only as a sophomore but also as the coach’s son, there is a lot of pressure. I think he’s showed a lot of maturity in accepting that role.”

The Balers have had plenty of growing pains this season. But the coaching staff is optimistic that the workmanlike culture being established this year will propel the program to newfound heights going forward.

“Having Brennan and Connor as our leaders going forward, it’s really going to pay off not only for our team next year but for the program as a whole,” Masoni said. “When we look back several years from now at which point we would have hoped to put together a winning program, we’ll look at these two players and say they helped develop a culture of working hard and showing what it takes to win.”

Balers junior Connor Champion has become a strong offensive option for setter Brennan Ventura.

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