Balers have turned things around

Jacob Burley will be key for the Balers this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jordan Yeager likens the San Benito High boys basketball team practices to a boxing match.

“Guys are almost to the point of breaking sometimes,” the senior shooting guard said. “We’re going toe to toe with each other because we want to win that much against whoever we play. We want to win so bad even in practice—it’s honestly insane.”

The Balers entered the week at 5-5, having already surpassed last year’s win total of four. The 6-foot-1, 155-pound Yeager said the difference has been the boxing-like mentality the players have in practice, where competition runs deep. A superior roster also has helped the Balers to a turnaround.

“I’m not saying last year we didn’t, but this year we have a lot more players who are competitive and want to win,” Yeager said. “The way coach (Anthony Butler) has set up everything is for us to get focused and have practices way more serious than last year. I’ve never been in an environment where everyone is active and yelling, which makes it fun because a lot of times it’s easy to just go through the motions in a typical practice.”

Balance has been the key for the Balers, who don’t have a Division I type star on their roster. Instead, San Benito has a deep lineup filled with highly capable players who are interchangeable and productive.

“Everyone on the team has the talent to start,” said Yeager, who scored a team-high 15 points in a 61-48 win over Seaside in the consolation bracket of the Palma Tournament on Dec. 15. “The goals for the team this year is obviously to have a winning record and since we dropped down a division to win the division. We all believe we have the talent, so now it’s up to us to use it.”

San Benito was coming off a 50-37 loss to Palma when it faced Seaside. Against Palma, the Balers were outscored 14-4 in the first quarter and faced an uphill climb from which it never recovered from. Against Seaside, San Benito turned the tables, building a commanding 17-6 lead after the first quarter.

Kaleb Guttierez scored five of his eight points in the opening minutes of the game, starting the game off with a layup and then draining a 3-pointer to give the Balers a 7-2 lead with 5 minutes, 12 seconds left in the first quarter. The outcome was never in doubt. After a Seaside player was assessed a technical foul for jawing at an official, Jacob Burley drained two free throws to make it 9-2.

Seaside answered with a score only to see the Balers close the quarter on a 8-2 run, highlighted by an acrobatic layup from Yeager and back-to-back 3-pointers from Chase Freeman, whose only two buckets of the contest came at a crucial time. It was more of the same in the second quarter, with Matt Campo scoring on a layup on an inbound play. Jon Mendoza scored a season-high 12 points, all in the second half.  

The sophomore scored eight of the team’s 13 points in the third quarter, getting to the basket and draining shots from long range. The Balers led by as many as 23 points before coasting to the finish. Campo finished with 10 points and is one of the returning starters off last year’s squad along with Burley and Yeager. All three players possess a strong basketball acumen, something that will be key especially in the league season when mistakes must be minimized.

Burley is the team’s best player at getting to the basket off dribble penetration, and Campo knows how to create space and find an open spot on the floor to get good looks at the basket. Both players have solid mid-range games, one of the dying arts in basketball today. San Benito went 13 for 35 from 3-point range (37 percent) against Seaside, a solid percentage and something it is capable of sustaining for the rest of the season.

Of course, teams can also die by the 3-point shot, so the Balers must be wary of relying on that shot when it’s not falling. In the rare moments when the starting five is not getting the job done or simply needs a breather, Butler has plenty of players on the bench who can come in and pick up the slack, or in intense games, give the starters a breather.

Marcus Aranda provided toughness in the paint against Seaside, while Chris Jurevich and Daniel Miskin connected on 3-pointers as the Balers finished with 11 3-pointers. Yeager noted players like Aranda and Eli Hatchett play a vital role.

“Marcus Aranda is great on the boards and is crazy strong on defense,” Yeager said. “He came up with 3 blocks versus Christopher, which was a momentum shifter. Eli Hatchett will be important for us because when Jake is not in the game, we need someone to bring the ball down and make sure to settle things and get into our offense. He really helps on the offensive end.”

San Benito has already received a good glimpse of what it’ll see in Mission Division play. In addition to whipping Seaside, the Balers lost to Alvarez 66-63 in the Palma Tournament and are 1-1 against Christopher this season, losing to the Cougars in the teams’ first game before exacting payback in the Bob Hagen Tournament, a 53-47 win on Dec. 8.

The championship promises to come down to the regular-season finale, and the Balers must be at their best if they expect to win the championship. They seemingly have what it takes to do just that, combining strong shooting, tough defense and a commitment to play hard on every possession. Yeager has liked what he’s seen from his teammates.

“Matt has really been big for us this year because he’s all over the boards and is scoring on the offensive end, which helps us a lot,” Yeager said. “He was a really big factor in helping us win against Christopher by scoring under the rim.”

Yeager also played a vital role against Christopher, nailing four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to give the Balers the lead for good. Yeager has done well moving off the ball as he has received solid screens from his teammates to get open looks at the basket.

“My role on this team is I’m the shooter,” he said. “Coach has told me that I’m the best shooter on the court, so I have to have that mentality. Any time I’m down or missing shots, he tells me to keep shooting and it’ll fall.”

Despite excelling in basketball and baseball—Yeager is expected to be one of the strongest pitchers on the team for the upcoming baseball season—he spent a lot of his time as an adolescent on the race track watching his dad, Mark, get in a dragster and go from 0 to 60 mph in a couple of blinks of an eye.

“I grew up at the race track,” Yeager said. “Ever since my mom started dating him, I’ve watched him from the stands. It’s his side thing that he loves doing. He’s gone to Las Vegas, Seattle and Arizona to race (in addition to local tracks in Sonoma and Sacramento).”

So does Jordan ever feel the need for speed? You bet. Yeager said he’ll most likely take a crack at race car driving in the future.

“I always said to my dad that I wanted to get a racing license,” Yeager said. “But he wanted me to focus on school and baseball mostly, and worry about racing  when I’m done with school. That’s a good plan because there are still many things I want to accomplish.”

Mark and Yeager’s uncle, Paul DeHaro, are the CEO and president, respectively, of West Coast Architectural Sheet Metal,  a highly successful architectural sheet metal company based in San Jose. Yeager plans on working for the company in the future, with the possibility of taking over the reins from his dad and uncle if he shows the same desire and skills in the business as he does on the court or on the mound.

In the off-season, Yeager spent a lot of time on baseball, however, he also made sure to stay sharp basketball-wise by going to Burley’s house, which has a nice half-court setup in the backyard. After playing two games this week—the first against Gunderson and the second against North Monterey County—the Balers don’t have another game until Jan. 4 against Salinas.

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