The San Benito High girls tennis team is proving that it doesn’t belong in the Monterey Bay League’s Pacific Division. Relegated to the MBL’s lower division because of a poor season in 2016, the Haybalers are running roughshod over their competition early in the 2017 season. Entering Thursday’s match against Monterey—a result that could go a long way in determining the Pacific Division champion—San Benito has won by scores of 7-0, 7-0, 7-0 and 5-2, respectively.
“This is perhaps the first time ever we’ve been in the bottom division, and we’re proving it’s kind of a fluke we’re here,” longtime Balers coach Ed Cecena said. “Last year we had our smallest roster ever, along with some hard luck with ineligibility and stuff like that. We’re barely losing games so far in league, and it’s hardly a challenge.”
The Balers’ success coincides with the fact that most of the returning players made it a point to get more serious about their game. Seniors like Vivian Hernandez and Laura Beltran along with Cecena and assistant coach Rick Espino emphasized playing in the off-season, which is a hard sell sometimes to student-athletes who have a number of other commitments.
Slowly but surely, Cecena and Espino said their message to current and future players on the team is settling in: That if you actually want to maximize your potential and see better results, you have to spend more time on the court. Led by ace Julia Pearson, No. 2 singles player Hernandez, No. 3 Jessica Parga and No. 4 Zoe Martinez, the Balers are dominating the singles portion of every division match.
“Our singles players did a lot of improvement over the off-season,” Cecena said. “That’s our strength. … Julia won well over 50 percent of her matches (in the Gabilan Division) last year, and she is athletic and has a lot of ability. And I’ve really been impressed with Jessica and her ability to focus and tune all the other stuff out. Once she gets on the court, she’s all business.”
Hernandez said she loves the makeup of this year’s squad, which has improved chemistry and a willingness to grind and compete for every point. The senior captain points to the No. 1 doubles team of Laura Beltran and Allison Okamoto, who showed plenty of mettle in a three-set win over Monte Vista Christian in a Sept. 13 match.
Beltran and Okamoto also rallied from three games down in the first set to post a 7-5, 6-2 victory over Watsonville on Sept. 26.
“They know how to come back after a rocky start,” said Hernandez, who has also been impressive in her play this season.
The Balers have a team dinner once a week, a nice changeup from always seeing each other on the courts.
“That’s been a big part of our success because girls get to know each other better,” Hernandez said.
Cecena credited the players and Espino for organizing a couple of events where the players could gain valuable experience in the off-season. Espino got together with the North Salinas and Alvarez coach and put together a summer jamboree, where several teams play at one location. The Balers also got invited to an event where they teamed up with members from the Gilroy Tennis Club, which really turned out to be an eye-opener.
“The players got to mingle with some of the older club members who told them, ‘Hey, this is what you can look forward to after you’re done with high school and college,’” Cecena said. “You can still play the sport for life, and it’s much more than an athletic thing—it’s a social thing as well. You form friendships for life, and it’s a great thing.”
San Benito hosts this year’s MBL Pacific Division tournament, which should be a treat since the Balers probably have the top player in the division in Pearson. The Balers must win the Pacific to get a match with the second-place team from the Gabilan for the league’s second berth into the Central Coast Section playoffs.
Seeing how San Benito has already beaten three teams—Alvarez, Christopher and MVC—from the Gabilan, a postseason berth is a realistic possibility.