When Annie Breger, Lauren Sabbatini, Nicole Andrade and Kieley Hoskins emerged as starters during their freshmen year, they never imagined they would be part of a core group that would go on to win three consecutive league championships. But that was the reality Thursday night when host San Benito High defeated Salinas in four games to three-peat as the Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division champions—the last two as the outright champs.
Spurred on by a raucous home crowd, the Haybalers defeated Salinas for the third time this season.
“This is the best one because of the atmosphere and because we’re seniors,” said Sabbatini, who had a team-high 25 kills to go along with 20 digs. “In prior years, we counted on other teams to beat certain teams, but this year we’re working hard to stay undefeated.”
Indeed, the Balers can run the table in league—something they haven’t done in the last two seasons—with a victory over Monte Vista Christian on Tuesday. It won’t be easy. The Mustangs pushed San Benito to five games—the only instance the Balers went the distance in league this year—in the teams’ first match on Sept. 28.
Then again, nothing has come easy during San Benito’s mini dynasty run. The senior quartet has had to adjust to three different coaches in four years and a new roster every season. Yet in the end, the results are the same: The Balers (11-0 league) are the queens of the Gabilan Division once again.
Feeding off the energy of a boisterous home crowd—“It was definitely the loudest crowd we’ve had this season,” Balers coach Emily Tonascia said—San Benito had too much for Salinas, which dropped to 8-2 in league play. The Cowboys showed plenty of grit, throwing a major scare to the home side when they saved five—count ‘em, five—match points in Game 3 to turn a 24-18 deficit to 24-23.
However, the Balers clinched the game by winning a long rally, which was commonplace throughout the match. Both squads played tremendous defense, digging up balls that would normally go down for points. San Benito’s defense is peaking at the perfect time, as players like senior libero Andrade made incredible digs time and again.
“I wish there was a way to track all the balls Nicole ran down because some of the plays she made were insane,” Tonascia said. “We played great defense tonight, and some of the rallies were so long because everyone was on their toes ready to play defense, which is exactly what we practice everyday.”
Sabbatini, the probable league Most Valuable Player, said defense was the key to the victory.
“Coach really has us focusing on defense in practice and getting every ball up no matter how hard it’s hit,” Sabbatini said. “She knew Salinas was going to make its move and really challenge us on defense, and what we were able to do in this game on defense showed just how hard we’re working on it in practice.”
Once again, San Benito had balance both offensively and defensively. Breger had 10 kills, Andrade finished with 21 digs, and Hoskins pumped out 43 assists to go along with 24 digs. Two juniors—Carissa Garcia and Eliana Gaitan—also played instrumental roles down the stretch, with Gaitan recording some key kills in Game 4. Another key newcomer, Marisa Greig, has added to the team’s offensive repertoire.
“We’re seeing a lot of good things from all of them,” Tonascia said. “They’ve really stepped it up, and they’ve had to because we need more hitters.”
Alyssa Ito, Maya Garcia, Amanda Navarro, Liz Fleming and Kiana Heredia have also made strong contributions, whether in matches or in practice. Tonascia decided to carry a 12-player roster in part so everyone would have a realistic opportunity to contribute in some form.
Sabbatini said the home crowd’s exuberance had a noticeable effect.
“We really appreciated them tonight,” she said. “This is by far the biggest crowd and most support we’ve gotten all year. The home crowd snaps us back in game mode if we’re struggling, and they pick us up when we’re down. It’s kind of like having a seventh person on the court for us.”
Of course, being a major part of three championship-winning teams carry a lot of emotion. Just ask Sabbatini, who welled up with tears after talking with former teammate Ally Murphy upon the completion of the match.
“I was a freshman when she was a senior, and she was like a mom to me,” Sabbatini said. “She pushed me everyday on the court and was always there for me, so it was really touching and awesome she came back to watch us.”
What makes San Benito’s accomplishment all the more remarkable is the fact it did it with a roster of players and coaches that change every season.
“We’ve had to connect to different coaches, all who had their own unique strengths,” Sabbatini said. “We’ve had to connect with new teammates every year, and we still succeed. Everything is different every year.”
Except this: The Balers are once again the champions of the MBL.