Balers expect strong turnaround

Vivian Hernandez is one of the top returners for the Baler girls tennis team.

With its biggest turnout in several years, the San Benito High girls tennis team expects nothing less than a 180-degree turnaround from a 2016 season that saw it finish in last place in the Monterey Bay League’s Gabilan Division. Demoted to the Pacific Division this season, the Haybalers are fortified for a division title run, aided by the return of their entire singles lineup.

In No. 1 singles player Julia Pearson, No. 2 Jessica Parga, No. 3 Vivian Hernandez and No. 4 Zoe Martinez, San Benito expects to win the majority of the singles action in every league match. Ed Cecena is in his 15th season coaching the team, the longest active head coach at the school. Longtime assistant coach Rick Espino has also done a solid job of getting the girls to commit to playing in the off-season.

With 21 players—including nine freshmen—San Benito’s roster is nearly double the size of last year. Cecena credited senior captains Laura Beltran and Hernandez for increasing the numbers on the roster.

“You have to give credit to our captains—they did a heck of a job getting out there and talking with a lot of friends at school,” Cecena said. “They encouraged a lot of girls to come out for the tennis team. … Last year we had our smallest roster ever, and that reflected in our record. When you have injuries like we did or players getting sick, it’s kind of hard to fill those spots. But this year we have so many freshmen, and we’re encouraged because we can develop them for the next two to three years.”

Hernandez, Cecena and Espino all manned a booth at the school’s annual Freshmen Preview Night last January, an event that allows the then-eighth graders to get a glimpse of all the activities, club and sports team the school offers. The trio got 15 girls to sign up before re-connecting with them as the months went on.

Of the 15 that signed up, five are on the team. That’s a pretty strong recruiting effort indeed.

“Freshmen Preview Night was definitely key in making connections and staying in touch with them,” said Hernandez, whose younger sister, Emily, is one of the freshmen on the team.

From there, the freshmen who showed the most interest got involved in the team’s summer workouts, allowing them to get to know the sophomores, juniors and seniors on the team.

“I think my sister really enjoys being on the team, and it’s nice because the majority of the girls already knew her and felt comfortable with the freshmen from getting to know them during the summer,” Hernandez said. “That’s something I didn’t have as a freshmen.”

Pearson, a junior, returns as the ace of the team. A strong competitor who is willing to grind things out, Pearson developed a stronger backhand in the off-season. Cecena said Pearson has more variety in her groundstrokes now that she can hit her backhand with topspin.

Last season, Pearson used a slice for the majority of her backhand shots.

“Last year, most opponents would attack her backhand, but it will not be so easy to exploit this season,” Cecena said. “Julia played strong last year, and she’s only getting stronger. She’ll be one of the players we look to depend on the most.”

Parga played No. 4 singles last year, but has made the move up to her current spot at No. 2 singles. Cecena said Parga is mentally tough in that she bears down and rarely loses focus throughout a match.

“Jessica does a really good job of concentrating on the court,” Cecena said. “We have a lot of confidence in her because of her ability to stay focused. Like Julia, Jessica is one of those players who has improved every year.”

Cecena said Hernandez “will be a force to be reckoned with” at the No. 3 singles position due to her varsity experience. And fellow senior Martinez—the more traditional baseliner of all the singles players—also possesses experience that should serve her well in matches. Cecena and Espino have been working with the singles players to attack a short ball and be aggressive in finishing off points.

“We’re really encouraging them to attack more and end the point quickly,” Cecena said.

While the team’s singles lineup is set, the doubles teams will be a work in progress. Beltran, a senior, will play No. 1 doubles, but the only other returning players who have varsity experience include Emily Hanson and Hannah Isom.

“We have three established doubles players, and the other ones we’ll go with whoever we think is playing well along with the matchups,” Cecena said. “The nice thing is the doubles players are working hard in practice, so they’ll develop as long as they’re consistently showing up for practice. We have one spot at No. 3 doubles that is open and not occupied, and it would be nice to have one of the freshmen step up and occupy that spot. It’s the person who develops the fastest and listening and incorporating what we’re trying to teach that will be in a great position to take that spot.”

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