Casey Matsui the last line of defense

Balers senior Casey Matsui has been outstanding in goal this season. Photo by Ed Wong.

Early in the fourth quarter of a Oct. 19 match between San Benito High and Monterey High, Casey Matsui found himself in an unenviable position. The Haybalers’ senior goalie was staring down Monterey’s Max Gibbs, who had a 5-meter penalty shot. But Matsui wasn’t fazed; after all, in the team’s first match a month earlier, Matsui faced the same exact situation.

This time, however, Matsui made a terrific save, diving to his left to deflect the ball.

“The first time we played them, he shot it to my left and I missed it,” Matsui said. San Benito (14-10), the regular-season MBL Pacific Division champions, opened the division playoffs Thursday with a 12-7 win over Palma. The top seed Balers play No. 4 seed Monterey on at 2 p.m. Saturday for the championship and an automatic berth into the Central Coast Section playoffs. “I figured this time he would be shooting in the same direction, and I guessed right and got the block.”

Matsui actually looks forward to facing tough penalty shots, as the pressure is on the shooter to score since it’s from a relatively close distance and a free shot.

“Those are fun because you have to get on your legs as much as possible and put your arms out wide,” he said. “There’s not much more you can do than that. You just hope they throw the ball in your arms and you guess right.”

Matsui has stopped several point-blank shots this season, a testament to the dramatic improvement he’s made in the last year. Matsui plays for the club team Legacy, which is based out of Monterey. Through that experience, Matsui learned and developed the skills necessary to take his game up a notch.

Last season, Matsui surrendered several soft goals, a byproduct of him still learning the position. This year those soft goals have been dramatically reduced, to the point where any time Matsui allows a goal that would be considered stoppable, he gets noticeably angry. Yes, Matsui’s standard is at a much higher bar compared to 2016.

“The coaches at Legacy really helped me a lot,” he said. “They taught me a lot about being a goalie that I didn’t know before. They taught me exactly where I need to be if the ball is at a certain spot in the pool, and that I needed to cut off angles and make it a lot harder for the shooter to find an opening.”

Matsui also learned how to properly utilize his arms when blocking the ball—technique makes all the difference—while upping his conditioning.

“All of the conditioning we did really helped me get in better shape,” he said.

In a physically demanding sport like water polo, superior conditioning makes a huge difference. Matsui doesn’t have the ideal prototypical goalie body, but he manages to excel regardless.

“I’m not very tall and I don’t have a large wingspan,” he said. “I have to have stronger legs and react quicker.”

The Balers will need Matsui to be when they play rival Monterey for the third time this season in the tournament final. In an 11-9 overtime loss to Monterey on Oct. 19, San Benito had a number of miscues in every facet of the game.

“Monterey beat us on the backdoor drive a lot,” Matsui said. “We’ll have to defend that better, make stronger passes and communicate better.”

Matsui has come a long way, as he had no idea what water polo was until his freshman year. He only started playing because Balers junior varsity coach David Garcia had a talk with Matsui’s parents, whom Garcia said “kind of forced me to try out.” While Matsui didn’t like it at the time, he is grateful his parents forced the issue in this one matter.

“I’m not going to lie—I wanted to quit after the first week of tryouts,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the conditioning, and it was hard. But luckily my parent and coaches told me to keep pushing, and that’s why I’m here now.”

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