Balers survive to play Los Gatos

San Benito High seniors Annie Breger, Nicole Andrade, Kieley Hoskins and Lauren Sabbatini have been key cogs in the program winning three straight league titles. Photo by Loyd Van Zante.

Down two games to one to Monta Vista-Cupertino in a Central Coast Section Division I playoff opener last Saturday, the San Benito High girls volleyball team’s season was in serious danger of ending prematurely.

“Before the fourth game, I asked the girls if they were ready to be done,” Haybalers coach Emily Tonascia said. “Because I didn’t think we were ready for our season to be over.”

The No. 2 seed Balers (30-7) responded by taking the final two sets—game scores were 27-25, 21-25, 18-25, 25-11, 15-10—to propel itself to a Wednesday semifinal matchup with No. 6 Los Gatos (this edition went to press before the start of the match). “After the third game, it finally clicked that they needed to come together because we can’t do this playing like individuals.”

San Benito will have to play at a higher level if it expects to beat Los Gatos, which finished 6-6 in the powerful Santa Clara Valley De Anza Division this season. For perspective, Monta Vista—which plays in the same division—was 4-8 and lost both of its matches against Los Gatos, in five games and three games, respectively.

The Balers certainly weren’t expecting to get as tested as they did in their playoff opener after winning a third consecutive Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division championship, going 12-0 in the process. However, Monta Vista gave the Balers all they could handle.

“We were having a difficult time defending against their middles,” Tonascia said. “But that fourth game our defense kind of figured it out, and all of our defensive specialists started digging up balls from Monta Vista’s middle attack. Before that game, balls were flying past us, but we started to do a good job of anticipating their tips.”

Tonascia said libero Nicole Andrade (25 digs) and defensive specialists Alyssa Ito (23 digs) and Kiana Heredia were instrumental in turning the match around with their defense. Lauren Sabbatini had 22 kills, Annie Breger had a season-high 17 kills and four blocks, and Kieley Hoskins finished with 49 assists for a San Benito team that is looking to make the CIF Northern California playoffs for the second straight year.

The Balers can make NorCals if they beat Los Gatos, which will pose a huge challenge. San Benito, which is the higher seed, received the short end of the straw as it has to play in Los Gatos’ home gym. Neutral site locations are set a year prior to the playoffs, and it just so happens that Los Gatos would host a Division I semifinal contest.

No matter. Tonascia knows if the Balers focus on themselves and play at the level they’re capable of, they’ll be comfortable with the outcome.

“It’s going to come down to who shows up and who makes the adjustments that need to be made during the game,” Tonascia said. “If we’re trying to hit it to the deep corners and it’s not working, we have to find somewhere else to hit the ball. Making those decisions will be super critical.”

Tonascia pointed to Breger’s performance as being key against Monta Vista, as the senior middle scored several times on tips, placing the ball smartly at different angles to get by the Monta Vista block. The Matadors gave the Balers trouble defensively by setting the middle for the majority of their attacks.

That’s something the Balers hadn’t seen for much of the season, as the majority of the teams in the MBL set to the outside. Fortunately for the Balers, they found their rhythm just in time.

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