Despite going 1-2 in the Homestead Tournament last weekend, the San Benito High boys water polo team is far from worried. In fact, the Haybalers are more confident than ever.
“We’re looking a lot stronger this year for sure,” senior Oliver Garcia said. “I expect us to win each league game by five goals and completely dominate this season. Everything is coming together. I feel we will go undefeated in league this year. If we don’t win league, I think our season will be a waste because we’re really good.”
Returning senior Zander Bonnet echoed Garcia’s thoughts.
“We have very high expectations this year,” Bonnet said. “It’s championship or bust. We’ve had a chance to win league the past four years, and I think this is the team that can finally put it together.”
San Benito returns all but one starter from a team that finished 11-3 in the Monterey Bay League’s Pacific Division last season, a game behind division champion Monterey. The Balers have reason for optimism; with 16 players on the roster, this is the most numbers they’ve had in recent memory.
Even more important, a number of players—including Bonnet, Ceily Hepner, Casey Matsui, Ben Smith and Connor Murphy—played club water polo in the spring and summer, bolstering their respective games. Hepner, who is the only girl on the team for the second straight season—San Benito doesn’t have a girls varsity squad—will play an important role, both offensively and defensively.
“Ceily is very knowledgeable about the game and a good all-around player,” Bonnet said. “She knows everything about the game there is to know, and is a real benefit to our team because she can put a shot away.”
With a little prodding, Hepner acknowledged she has a good understanding of the game and sees plays develop earlier than most. That’s why Hepner is seriously taking her role as one of the main communicators on defense.
“Whether it’s calling a switch on a drive or telling others to back to the (hole) set, I want to make sure we’re always communicating,” she said. “Other things such as calling for help defense and making sure the goalie is aware we’re dropping and having the set covered is also important.”
Hepner possesses a strong left-handed shot, to go along with solid passing skills. The senior played club water polo with a Santa Clara Swim Club that competed in the Junior Olympics in Los Angeles earlier this summer. With a year of playing on the boys team under her belt, Hepner has never felt better about her game.
“Last year definitely boosted my confidence,” she said. “I’m more comfortable now in how I can help the team. I want to shoot and get more involved in the offense this year, and facilitate where the ball needs to go.”
Judging by the team’s first couple of matches, scoring won’t be a problem. San Benito scored 26 goals in its first three games; however, they allowed 32 over the three contests.
“We have to learn to communicate defensively as a team rather than as individuals,” Hepner said.
Garcia is confident the team will do just that. Garcia, who had a breakout season as a junior in scoring over 30 goals, said the talent level from last year to this season is noticeable.
“Everyone has improved,” he said. “(Goalie) Casey, I can tell his game got way better. He knows the angles to guard from, and he’s going to be very important for us.”
Garcia had several goals late in contests a year ago, a testament to his ability to play his best when it matters the most. Even though Garcia has a strong offensive game, he said one of his goals is to set up his teammates more often this season.
“I want to feed the guys and get them goals, because if everyone is scoring, the team gets better,” he said. “I’m looking to get more assists, and my confidence is higher because my shooting and passing is better.”
Garcia said teammate Josh Corrigan has a strong shot and is a player he’ll look to set up often. Of course, Garcia’s good friend, Bonnet, is the sniper on the team, able to score at will at times. Bonnet worked on being stronger in the pool, a necessity in a sport where burly athletes are pushing and pulling on each other throughout.
“I wanted to come back stronger, and I think I’ve made some path toward that,” Bonnet said. “But I still have some work to do. I’m not a big boy by any means, but it was good to go out and become stronger.”
Hepner said Bonnet’s offensive arsenal will open up scoring opportunities for everyone else.
“Zander’s speed is incredible,” she said. “He’s always moving on the offensive, and teams pay attention to him, so we can use that to our advantage. If we put him in the set, everyone else will drop and it’ll open up a shot from the outside.”
To his credit, Bonnet said he’ll have to maintain more of an even temperament to maximize the team’s chance of winning.
“I’ll try to trust my teammates with things and try not to do too much,” he said. “I think I’ve gotten a little better at that, but we’ll see as the season goes on.”
Balers coach Brendan Sigourney has reason for optimism: A deep and talented roster of players who are motivated to win their first league title.
“We have a big group of seniors who have a lot of game experience,” Sigourney said in an email to the Free Lance. “So it’s a matter of putting it all together and playing as a team in the water and not like seven individuals. It’s up to them to show up for games and prove they want it (league championship).”
Sigourney said Ryan Okubo, Corrigan and Smith have made dramatic improvement and have a “ton of potential.” San Benito also has depth at goalie, with Parker Oelrich playing well in the Homestead Tournament.
However, the Balers know they’ll need to improve their communication on defense to become a championship-caliber squad. That’s where the senior trio of Bonnet, Garcia and Hepner play an important role, as they are the team leaders and driven to perform.