What was setting up to be a monumental showdown turned into a long-awaited coronation for the San Benito High boys water polo team. Playing Monterey High in the championship match of the Monterey Bay League Pacific Division playoffs last Saturday at Aptos High, the Haybalers left no doubt of their superiority in a convincing 11-3 victory.
The win earned the Balers an automatic berth into the Central Coast Section playoffs, something the program has accomplished just a handful of times in its history. San Benito (16-10), which earned the No. 8 seed in the Division I playoffs, plays No. 1 Gunn (16-11) on Saturday at Menlo-Atherton High.
“It was really exciting, especially for a couple of us who have been on the varsity the last four years,” Balers senior Zander Bonnet said. “The last three years we’ve had some heartbreaking losses, and it’s really special that we were able to pull it all together this time. There were a lot of tears, fist bumps and hugs, and we got to throw coach (Brendan Sigourney) in the pool. That was fun.”
Surprisingly, too much fun. Monterey went 1-1 with San Benito during the regular season including a win in the teams’ last match two weeks ago. However, the Balers made some great adjustments and used the regulation-sized pool to their advantage in whipping Monterey.
In the teams’ previous match, two Monterey players were responsible for scoring nine of the Toreadores’ 11 goals. Several of those scores came on the backdoor drive, which the Balers shut down completely this time around. San Benito’s game plan was to take those two Monterey players out of the game, and they did just that.
The larger pool also played a factor in the outcome. The Balers have a host of fast swimmers, but that speed gets negated at their home pool, which is less than half the size of a regulation-sized pool typical at most high schools. Since Monterey High doesn’t have a home pool, both of the teams’ regular-season matches were played at San Benito High.
“Our team really benefits from playing in a bigger pool because we can use it to work our counter attacks and speed,” Bonnet said. “And Monterey’s offense works well when everything is clustered together, which confused us the last time we played them.”
Bonnet scored all three of his goals in the first quarter, staking the Balers to a 4-1 lead entering the second period. Oliver Garcia also had three goals, Ben Smith had two and Gordan Rianda, Josh Corrigan and Eduardo Villanueva had one tally apiece.
Sigourney has been preaching defense all season, and the team produced its best performance yet.
“We talked a lot about taking them (two Monterey players) out of the game and running a defensive scheme that would make the other players on Monterey step up,” Sigourney said. “The fact that we allowed only three goals is a testament to the excellent defensive effort (of all the players) and job by Casey Matsui in cage for us.”
Having finished in second or third place in league the last three years, San Benito knew this season would be its best chance to capture the championship. Led by a senior-dominated roster, the Balers knew it was now or perhaps never. Bonnet set the tone by scoring on the second possession of the game, and San Benito pulled away rather easily.
“Those goals (by Zander) are even more impressive when you look at the fact that every coach looks to double or triple team Zander whenever he gets the ball,” Sigourney said. “Even when he doesn’t score the lion’s share of goals, most teams end up doubling him. This opens up scoring opportunities for others as a result.”
Sigourney said Garcia scored clutch goals throughout the season, including a couple of tallies when it looked for a brief moment that Monterey was threatening to make things interesting in the second quarter. Corrigan also has been strong in important moments, and Rianda, Smith and Villanueva have made dramatic improvements in helping the team.
One player who didn’t score—Ceily Hepner—happens to be one of the most impactful players on the squad.
“Ceily has been largely responsible for our successes this season,” Sigourney said. “She is one of the smartest and most fundamentally sound players on our team. She knows when to crash on set, when to make the pass, and reads the pool extremely well.”
In addition, Sigourney said Dawson Garcia and Ryan Okubo have been the team’s defensive specialists as the primary and secondary hole guards. In the end, it was a balanced team effort that propelled the Balers to a coveted division championship.