Balers volleyball seeks four-peat

Jaya Waller and the San Benito High players and coaches hope for more celebrations like this throughout the season. Photo by Chris Mora.

The San Benito High girls volleyball team has won three consecutive league championships, including the last two in outright fashion. This season, the Haybalers’ quest for a four-peat will be as tough as ever. For one, the Gabilan Division got even tougher with the additions of Carmel and Santa Catalina, two perennial Central Coast Section playoff participants.

Two, the Balers graduated four starters who were instrumental to the program for the last four years. Having said all that, San Benito still might have the requisite talent, work ethic and determination to make a legitimate run at a fourth straight league title.

“We do think it’s very realistic (that we can contend for another title),” said Alyssa Ito, a returning senior defensive specialist who recently accepted a scholarship offer to play softball at UC Davis. “It’s weird kind of losing all that senior leadership from last year, but we’ve got younger girls who are ready to step in and make a difference.”

It’s not as if the Balers are lacking for talent; in fact, they have a nice blend of returning players along with an influx of newcomers who have shown they’re ready to make an immediate impact. In senior Elizabeth Fleming and junior Roxanne Black, San Benito has a formidable presence in the middle capable of stuffing the opposition’s attack.

“Elizabeth is probably one of the best middles in the league, and her and Roxanne put up a great block,” Balers coach Emily Burley said. “They can also swing it, which is great.”

The team has some strong offensive firepower in returners Carissa Garcia on the right side and Elliana Gaitan, who both had standout moments a season ago. Garcia and Gaitan won’t overpower the opposition; rather, they play smart and look for ways to get the ball down.

“They bring a lot of court knowledge and are smart hitters,” Burley said. “They see spots and put the ball in spots they need to go.”

The Balers also have outside hitters Amanda Navarro and Nicole Miller, a sophomore who recorded a team-high 17 kills in the season-opener against Woodside on Aug. 28. There’s going to be plenty of Miller time for the Balers in the present and future, as the sophomore can flat-out hit it.

“Nicole has a heavy swing, is very strong and willing to learn,” Burley said.

Ito said Miller reminded her of Lauren Sabbatini, last year’s Gabilan Division MVP who is now playing at Fresno State. San Benito looks to be strong at the setter and defensive specialist positions. Sophomore Jaya Waller, Maya Villegas and Maya Garcia all have the ability to run the offense, while Ito, Francesca Giannotta and senior Kiana Heredia—who will be one of the team’s liberos this season—fortify a solid defensive specialist corps.

Juniors Isabella Rivas and Lilie Sutton provide depth on the right side and the defensive specialist spots. In Rivas, the Balers have a left-hander to play the right side, which according to Ito is no small thing to overlook.

“It’s a lot more natural position to have a lefty on the right side,” Ito said. “Not only on defense but when on offense because it’s really hard to pick up a ball from a lefty. She also has a good block, and that helps us a lot.”

Against Woodside, Fleming and Gaitan had seven kills apiece, and the setter tandem of Garcia (53 assists) and Waller (34 assists) produced time and again. Heredia finished with 14 digs, Waller had nine and Gaitan eight. Fleming had seven blocks, while Black and Rivas had five blocks each. Burley said the team learned a lot from its four-set loss to Woodside, which should go a long way in the team’s quest to win a fourth consecutive league title.

“We can only take care of the things we can control, and if we’re trying to do too much that doesn’t help anybody,” she said. “We have a lot of returners and the four people who graduated—yes they were four big spots—but there is no doubt in my mind these girls can hold their own. I know last year we relied on a few players more, but we don’t want that to be the case this year. We want everyone to be a standout.”

Ito has been on the varsity since her freshman year, and hopes her final year of playing competitive volleyball is a great one. A three-sport standout, Ito was equally parts excited and relieved that she doesn’t have to worry about applying to colleges anymore by committing to UC Davis.

A solid and heady player who possesses excellent footwork and game instincts, Ito has plenty of game and intangibles to make an impact at the Division I level. Interestingly enough, Ito got on UC Davis’ radar after the coaches came to a tournament to look at another player on Ito’s club softball team a couple of years ago.

“I was super excited (they offered a day before school started),” she said. “I kind of assumed if it (earning an athletic scholarship) was going to happen, it was going to be in softball because I’m pretty small for those other sports (I play in basketball and volleyball).”

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