To underscore the competitiveness of the Pacific Coast League’s Gabilan Division this season, San Benito High coach Mitch Burley noted two websites predicted the Haybalers would finish fifth in the standings this year. Mind you, there are only six teams in the Gabilan this season.
There is no shame if the Balers finished behind defending champion Seaside, North Salinas, Notre Dame-Salinas and Monte Vista Christian—those teams entered the week with a combined record of 49-18. However, San Benito desires something more than a fifth-place finish.
“Finishing in the top half of the league is the goal,” Burley said. “Seaside is the returning champion and they’re obviously favored to win, but if we can beat Notre Dame and Monte Vista—those are the games I kind of circled on the calendar—that will separate us from finishing either in the top half of the league or the bottom half.”
The Balers opened up league play with a come-from-behind 41-38 win over Notre Dame-Salinas, impressive considering they were limited to just 13 points at halftime. In a defensive, grind-it-out contest, San Benito finally found its offense in the fourth quarter, scoring more points (15) than in the first two quarters combined.
In a 47-37 win over Gilroy High on Jan. 15, Kaiya Dickens finished with a game-high 21 points, Alyssa Ito did another magnificent job of controlling the tempo and San Benito passed the ball well, especially going inside-out with efficiency. Passing has been the team’s trademark this season, a byproduct of consistently practicing it and playing unselfishly.
“We passed the ball well and that is the thing we’ve been working on,” Burley said. “We have seven returning players who play most of the minutes, and that helps with the continuity. They all kind of know what to do because we work on it (press attack stuff) everyday. Hopefully, it’s working.”
San Benito improved to 12-4 overall and 2-0 in league after the Gilroy game, and the terrific start couldn’t have been done without the emergence of Lorin Lopes and Chloe Heen. Neither senior received much playing time last year; however, they have come on strong this season.
“If we expected us to be 12-4, the thing we would’ve needed was Lorin Lopes and Chloe Heen stepping up,” Burley said. “They have been the X-factors.”
Heen has the ability to connect from 3-point range, and Lopes plays solid within the framework of the team. Dickens has followed up a terrific freshman season with an equally strong sophomore year. Against Gilroy, Dickens was her usual active self, posting up in the lane, moving well off the ball and hitting shots from close range and from the outside.
Dickens was prolific, as her 14 points at the half equaled Gilroy’s output. Early in the second quarter, Dickens utilized her solid footwork and hit a spinning, five foot jumper that involved her using her pivot foot with precision. Dickens was also ferocious on the boards, finishing with eight rebounds, including four offensive.
“Kaiya has this natural ability to score, rebound, shoot, and on top of that she’s strong,” Burley said. “Up until last year I think basketball was her fourth activity, behind softball, soccer and having a black belt in karate. She doesn’t have the experience of someone who grew up playing the game, which makes it amazing to see what she’s been doing.”
No one in the league is more valuable to her team than Ito is to the Balers. Ito never came out of the game against Gilroy, a testament to her worth to the team.
“I don’t ever take Alyssa out unless she’s hurt or in foul trouble,” Burley said. “If anyone who has ever watched or seen our games when we do take her out, there is a big difference.”
Ito provides deft ball handling, sets the tone and allows the team to get into its sets. She had nine points and five assists against Gilroy, consistently getting to the lane off dribble penetration and creating scoring opportunities for her teammates. Junior forward Jay Trejo has also been a key factor, with her ability to rebound and play tough defense. Sophomore Emma Alfaro has also had a nice season and played well against Gilroy.