Balers girls volleyball on historic run

Nicole Andrade, Kieley Hoskins, Annie Breger and Lauren Sabbatini are the returning seniors for a team that won 32 games last season.

Back-to-back Monterey Bay League championships, including an outright title last year. A 2017 California Interscholastic Federation Northern California playoff victory. Sixty-three—count, ‘em, 63—wins in the last two years, the most in any two-year stretch in program history.

The San Benito High girls volleyball team is in the midst of a historic stretch, and there’s nothing to suggest that the Haybalers will be slowing down this season. They return four starters, including standout seniors Lauren Sabbatini, Nicole Andrade, Kieley Hoskins and Annie Breger.

They also have an influx of talented junior and sophomore newcomers, including Carissa Garcia, Eliana Gaitan, Marisa Greig and Amanda Navarro. Two juniors—Alyssa Ito and Elizabeth Fleming—are returnees who play defensive specialist and middle blocker, respectively.

Sophomores Maya Garcia and Kiana Heredia round out the 12-player roster, and they are expected to make an impact as well. After two spectacular seasons, what can the Balers do for an encore? Win a third consecutive MBL Gabilan Division championship and a Central Coast Section title, the latter they haven’t done since the 2006 season.

“We’re going to do really well,” said Sabbatini, who played for Vision in the off-season, one of the most high profile club teams in Northern California. “We’ve been busting our butts with conditioning and volleyball work, and I’m really excited.”

Sabbatini enters the season as the best outside hitter in the MBL, someone who can flat-out dominate matches for a long stretch. Even though Sabbatini is known for her powerful spikes, Balers coach Emily Tonascia said she’s been impressed with the senior’s overall skill set.

“Lauren is also a fantastic passer,” Tonascia said. “She’s a great all-around player.”

Said Sabbatini: “I really wanted to focus on defense because last year I would get subbed out sometimes for defense, and I really wanted to pick it up for my senior year.”

Hoskins is also coming off a tremendous season, as her setting and decision-making was impeccable.

“Kieley has really great hands, court sense and knows where her teammates are,” Tonascia said. “She communicates well with them.”

Breger, a middle blocker, has been an integral player for the team since her sophomore year. Breger has the ability to pound down kills and stuff an opposing team’s attack.

“Annie is a really hard worker and never takes a second off,” Tonascia said. “She has a lot of energy, and I can put her anywhere and she can play.”

Andrade returns as the starting libero, and along with Ito some of the central figures in the San Benito defense. Agile and instinctive, Andrade reads the opposing attackers well and puts herself in great position to make a dig.

“She’s done really well and has taken a lot of other back row players under her wing,” Tonascia said. “She’ll even stay after practice to help the freshmen team, which is a really awesome thing to see.”

A year ago, the Balers had three elite hitters in Sabbatini, Marisa Villegas and Camille Finley, the last two having graduated. San Benito needs another player to become an offensive tour de force so teams can’t focus all of their blocking schemes on Sabbatini.

Fleming might fill that role nicely. By all accounts, he 6-foot-1 Fleming has made dramatic strides since last season, and her teammates can’t wait for her to make a big impact.

“She really progressed throughout the summer,” Sabbatini said. “I know she got a lot of help from a lot of different coaches. She’s killing it right now, and will be one of our best hitters.”

Sabbatini has been really impressed with the newcomers on the team, noting how they push each other everyday in practice and compete hard for positions. Tonascia also has been happy with how the new varsity players are performing. Navarro has been effective offensively, and she’ll be counted upon to provide the team with depth.

“Marisa and Carissa are both utility hitters, Eliana is a solid outside hitter and defensive player, and Kiana has been great at defensive specialist,” Tonascia said. “She’s really good at serve-receive and is able to get her body to the spot she needs it to be to make a play. Maya has also stepped up as a setter, and she’s worked really hard to come out of her shell and push herself to be that leader on the court when she’s out there.”

Tonascia said the team’s strength lies in its passing and defense, which comes as somewhat of a role reversal from the last two years when team’s offense was ahead of its passing and defense.

“Something I’d like to see progress rather quickly would be our hitting,” Tonascia said. “Hitting and making good decisions with the spots we’re going to hit, and deciding when to 100 percent swing at a ball and when to tip.”

The Balers have high expectations, in part because they have a strong nucleus of returning seniors along with an influx of talented newcomers. How they mesh and play on key points will go a long way in determining if they can win 30-plus matches for the third straight year.

Sabbatini is ready to go, having had a strong club season. She was part of a Vision team that advanced to the national championships in Indianapolis in early July. The Balers enter the season invigorated and motivated to continue and perhaps even surpass what they’ve accomplished the last two years.

“The girls want to surpass what they did last year,” Tonascia said.

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