Balers have what it takes to win league

Chloe Heen, Kaiya Dickens and Alyssa Ito have been instrumental in the team's strong start. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Kaiya Dickens got the ball on the left wing, dribbled to the top of the key and drained a 3-pointer—just the way the play was drawn up by Mitch Burley, the longtime San Benito High girls basketball coach. Dickens’ shot—it bounced straight up after initially hitting the rim before coming down and through the net—with a couple of seconds left in the first overtime period against Cupertino on Dec. 15 tied the game to force double overtime.

From there, the Balers took control en route to a thrilling 57-53 victory. The result marked the fifth time in which San Benito had scored 55 or more points in a game this year. Last season, the Balers scored 55 or more points in a game just two times. The turnaround is a testament to the team’s vast improvement from a season ago. The added talent and ability to score have translated directly into the win column, as the Balers improved to 8-2 after the Cupertino game.

“We’re definitely a more skilled team this year, and I think we work harder than in years past,” said senior Alyssa Ito, who has been the team’s starting point guard since her freshman year. “We’re pretty pumped up and feeling pretty good this season. We haven’t been terrible the last couple of years, but since I’ve been here we haven’t been close to being this good. It’s pretty nice to win most of your games.”

San Benito had a fifth-place finish sandwiched in between a pair of third-place finishes in the Gabilan Division covering the last three years. Judging by the way the team has looked so far, it would be stunning if the Balers weren’t contending for the championship this season.

With a starting lineup of Ito, shooting guard Chloe Heen, forwards Lorin Lopes and Dickens and center Jay Trejo—along with key reserves Drew Barragan and Mackenzie Honeycutt—San Benito can score inside, outside and in the mid-range area, something it didn’t have the ability to do in the last several years. Ito is as solid as ever, able to break full-court pressure should an opponent try to utilize that tactic against the Balers.

“The difference this year is when we break the press now, we have a lot of different players who can score and make the other team pay for pressing us,” Ito said.

Dickens, who started last season as a freshman, has impressed her teammates with her ability to score and be downright dominant rebounding the ball.

“Kaiya is a beast,” Ito said. “I think she is stronger than ever and has been stronger than any girl we’ve faced from another team we’ve played this year. I don’t even know how she comes up with rebounds sometimes. There will be four girls around her and she’ll be the one coming down with it. It’s crazy watching how good she’s been.”

Dickens has a knack for the ball, positions herself in the right spot and takes to instruction well. On the game-tying 3-pointer against Cupertino, Dickens looked like she was in no hurry, a mark of a player who knows the situation. She calmly drained the 3-pointer despite a defender being draped on her, catapulting the team to victory. Barragan hit a couple of clutch free throws at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime, something the Monte Vista Christian-transfer has had a knack for doing this season.

“Drew versus Cupertino made 5 of 6 free throws and hit a jumper that pushed us over the edge,” Ito said “She does that stuff in games a lot, where she’ll make a shot when we really need it.”

The biggest improver has been Heen, who didn’t receive much playing time last year as a junior but has come on strong this season. Heen can flat-out shoot the ball, and if she gets hot, watch out. Lopes is another returning senior who impacts the game with her ability to play tough defense and be tenacious on the boards. Trejo knows how to be ferocious on the glass as well, and her offensive game is underrated.

“She grabs a lot of rebounds and every once in a while she decides that hey, ‘I’m going to score this one,’” Ito said. “Once she decides that, she’s unstoppable. She might get a little nervous sometimes when she gets the ball inside, and will look for me and Chloe. But once she starts taking the ball herself and keeps it, she’ll score a lot of points.”

Honeycutt’s strengths lie in her ability to get the job done without it showing up in the box score. Every team needs players like Honeycutt, who go about their business with a workmanlike attitude.  

“She’s a really smart player who doesn’t score but doesn’t turn the ball over,” Ito said. “That’s what we need, and she comes in and does what she needs to do to help the team.”

Ito has been helping the team for four years. It seemed just like yesterday when Ito was a freshman dazzling onlookers with her ability to control the pace of the game, get to the basket off dribble penetration and playing with a maturity beyond her years. With her best supporting cast yet, Ito can’t wait for the season to unfold.

Ito actually fouled out of the Cupertino game—resulting from an error from the scorekeeper, Dickens said—making the team’s victory all the more impressive. Had Ito fouled out in any game in the last three years with the outcome still to be decided, the Balers would’ve had little chance of winning. However, the Balers are stronger this season at every position, giving them high hopes.

“Of course we don’t want to be in that position, but winning that game without Alyssa gave us even more confidence,” Dickens said. “She’s the one that brings the ball up and past the defense, and with her not in the game we all had to step up and get the job done.”

Dickens’ game-tying 3-pointer wasn’t the first time she’s pulled off last-second heroics. In the team’s loss to Santa Clara in last year’s Central Coast Section playoffs, Dickens hit a late 3-pointer to make things interesting. The trey she made against Cupertino was something out of a dream, a terrific play in a career that has already been filled with memorable moments.

“We ran that play exactly how coach drew it up,” she said. “I was so excited and you can see it on my face from what my friends told me. It was pretty awesome, but it felt like the ball was up in the air for 10 hours before it dropped in.”

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