The shots came from everywhere: from five meters and beyond, from close range, from point-blank range. Through it all, Haybalers goalie Tyler Oelrich—to borrow an ice hockey term—was standing on his head. Despite an outstanding performance from Oelrich and his teammates last Wednesday against Gilroy High, the Balers lost a nailbiter, 8-7, in a key Pacific Coast League Mission Division match.
The contest was essentially for the division championship, as both teams entered the game with 7-1 league records. This was the rubber match between the two squads, as San Benito won the first meeting 11-10 in overtime before Gilroy drubbed the Balers 11-2 in the second game. The third and final match between the two rivals was as good as advertised, featuring three ties, four lead changes and plenty of suspense and action throughout the entire contest.
“They’re a strong team,” Oelrich said. “We just wanted to come out swinging this game and had been preparing for a great match. We used our last two games as practice. We upped our technique to counter theirs and did the best we could. We’re not too mad at the outcome of the game because we played pretty well.”
Especially Oelrich, who made a half-dozen point-blank saves against an offensive Gilroy team that unleashed 36 shots compared to San Benito’s 15. However, Oelrich was on his game, cutting off the angles, anticipating well and using his experience and athleticism to prevent the Mustangs from finishing with double-digit goals or more.
“I’ve coached seven years now and I’ve been gifted with a lot of really good goalies—and I don’t want to offend any of my previous goalies—but I think he’s the best one I’ve had,” Balers coach Brendan Sigourney said. “He’s an incredible asset for us in the cage. I can count on him blocking shots that look unblock able, and that helps us drop, run our defense and get the counter (attack going).”
Ramon Duran and Jeremy Smith accounted for all of the team’s scoring against Gilroy, with Duran scoring four goals. Both players have had breakout seasons, which couldn’t have come at a better time since this year’s roster has a total of only eight players.
“Ramon is an incredible player,” Sigourney said. “He’s been our go-to guy all year. He has that grit, he has that ball sense and is a quiet leader in the pool who people follow. And Jeremy is our baseball player who we convinced to play water polo, and he said yes thankfully. He has a great arm and was huge for us today in getting those goals. He’s been like that all season in being one of our best shooters.”
The Balers got off to a terrific start against Gilroy, as Duran made a perfect pass to Smith, who was stationed at the right wing and drilled a beautiful one-timer for a 1-0 lead with 5 minutes, 27 seconds left in the first period. The Mustangs scored the next two goals before Oelrich launched a pass three-fourths the length of the pool to a streaking Duran, who had gotten behind the defense for a breakaway. Duran did the rest, burying the shot with 1:29 remaining in the opening period.
Moments before, Oelrich denied two Gilroy shots from point-blank range. The teams engaged in a defensive battle for the next several minutes, with neither team able to score. The Balers did a nice job of forcing Gilroy into perimeter shots, and when Duran scored after unleashing a rocket for a shot with 2:45 left until halftime, it gave the Balers a 3-2 lead at the break and seemingly in control to win the match. However, Gilroy scored the first three goals in the third quarter, and San Benito never got closer than one goal the rest of the way.
“That third quarter they came out and got two early counterattacks, which we had been doing a good job of preventing until then,” Sigourney said. “So that kind of changed the tide right here. We adjusted after that, but them having a three-goal lead was hard to come back from.”
But the Balers nearly pulled it off. Trailing 8-5 with 3:31 to go, San Benito received goals from Smith and Duran to make it a one-goal game with 42 seconds left. Gilroy didn’t do much on the ensuing possession, content to run down the shot clock. The Balers got the ball back with 15 seconds remaining, and they got a decent scoring chance as Smith’s shot went over the top crossbar as the buzzer sounded.
It was Duran who got the team to within 8-6 by drilling a shot to the left corner from seven meters away before Smith buried a shot from point-blank range to account for the final score. Duran and Smith showed why they’ve been prolific scorers this season, utilizing skip shots and quick, reverse no-look shots on occasion. In addition to making several point-blank saves, Oelrich stuffed a Gilroy breakaway attempt early in the third period. Last season, in just his second year playing goalie, Oelrich was solid.
This season Oelrich has been terrific, a result of the intersection of talent and experience taking shape. Oelrich started out as a field player on the junior varsity team during his freshman year before transitioning to the starting JV goalie as a sophomore. His older brother, Parker, who was a backup goalie to Casey Matsui, encouraged Tyler to make the switch.
“Once I got in the cage, I fell in love with it,” Tyler said. “It was a lot of fun. I just wanted to be the best ever, or the best I could possibly be. Parker and Casey helped train me and really helped me become the player I am now.”
Recognizing the benefit of training up the future and giving back, Oelrich said he’s been working with the JV goalie so by next season that person will be a difference-maker in front of the cage. The 6-foot-2 Oelrich utilizes a long wingspan, cat-like reflexes and athleticism to make the routine saves and the spectacular ones, but he also credited his teammates in excelling.
“I have a great team that plays some great defense,” he said. “They definitely help me by taking away the angles so shots aren’t as hard to block. (On the point-blank saves) I have a lot of experience, as our team runs those type of drills. They’re high intensity. I also say prayers before games and just pray for the best game I could possibly have. I get focused and when I’m in the zone, I perform to the best of my ability.”