Balers on a mission in the Mission Division

Balers point guard Eli Hatchett will be key in the team's quest to contend for a Mission Division title. Photo by Robert Eliason.

In the locker room before each game, the players on the San Benito High boys basketball team bump to the tunes of their favorite songs. Senior captain Jon Mendoza is the one who starts shouting out the lyrics, and his teammates follow suit. A little while later in pregame warm-ups, Mendoza can be seen going up to his teammates and giving them a chest bump or a running high-five before telling them, “I need you today.”

“Jon is motivating to me and hopefully to the other guys as well,” Haybalers coach Anthony Butler said. “He gets the guys fired up before games and in practice, too. It’s kind of fun and exciting to watch and be a part of that.”

Said Mendoza, a senior forward: “This year as one of only three seniors on the team, I need to be more of a leader. I always tell guys to come out with a lot of energy. Trying to get a team pumped is something that has always been in me. I’ll do anything to help our team win.”

San Benito had a 4-3 record entering this week’s play, the first time the team has had a winning record at this point in the season in several years. Mendoza admitted he has struggled early in the season, but expressed confidence he will turn things around. The Balers will need him to if they expect to contend for the Pacific Coast League Mission Division championship.

When Mendoza is on his game, he runs the floor well, gets out in space, drives to the basket and has the ability to get hot from 3-point range. Perhaps the highlight of his career came last year in the team’s win over Seaside in the Palma Tournament, in which he scored 12 points, all in the second half. Mendoza is looking to regain that form and even improve upon that.

“I expect more out of myself from what I’ve showed this year, especially being a senior captain,” he said. “I really haven’t had a good game yet this year, but in time I will turn it around.”

The Balers are playing in the B division for the first time in a long time. They’ve struggled mightily in the Gabilan Division the last several years, so the placement in the Mission gives them much better odds of contending for a league championship and being competitive on a game-to-game basis.

“Getting bumped down kind of was a bummer because we’re not playing the top teams this year, but there are always going to be top teams in every division,” Mendoza said. “We’ll make the most of it, and we’ll try our hardest to win the division and try to get bumped up again for next year.”

Butler, who is in his third season as the San Benito coach, likes the work ethic of this year’s team and is optimistic that it can be competitive through the league season, something it hasn’t done the previous couple of seasons. Butler described senior point guard Eli Hatchett as “our go-to guy.” Hatchett is the team’s leading scorer, often doing it with transition layups. But he also has shown the ability to knock down 3-pointers and can be disruptive defensively, harassing opposing teams with his ability to get steals.

Marcus Aranda, a returning senior forward, gives the team much-needed physicality in the paint. Athletic and burly, Aranda continues to be ferocious on the glass, spearheading the team’s rebounding efforts. Butler said junior guards Chase Freeman and Thomas Breen both possess high basketball IQs, and will play key roles as will sophomore forward Jaiden Freidt, one of the team’s key newcomers.

“Jaiden should play big minutes for us this year,” Butler said. “I like what our guys have been doing, including Chase. He is a good leader, a good competitor and gets after it.”

Mendoza has been impressed with his teammates’ play, and pointed out Freeman’s development as one of the most positive storylines on the team.

“Chase started a couple of games last year, but played a lot,” Mendoza said. “This year, he’s come back a better player. He’s improved everything in his game, and it’s great to see.”

Victor Moisoto, a junior center, has the potential to make an impact by rebounding, screening and playing tough defense. San Benito aims to hang its proverbial hats on defense, hoping it will be the difference in producing a top-tier league finish.

“Our defense will have to lead the way,” Butler said. “We’ll have to be quick on defense with a goal that it will lead to some easy buckets. Our guys are scrappy and our guards will look to trap in the half court and guard full court. So far our guards have gone after it defensively, and we’re trying to get them to constantly attack the basket as well. That’s how we’ll be successful.”

Butler hopes the team’s season-opening win over North Salinas on Dec. 2 proves to be a harbinger. The Balers came out strong, attacked the basket and handled the Vikings’ press with ease. That was a good starting point for the Balers, who played Salinas on Wednesday. Even though San Benito got blown out against California High of San Ramon in the Alisal Tournament on Dec. 5, Butler said the players showed some mettle.

“California was one of the biggest high school teams I’ve ever seen,” Butler said. “Their lineup went something like 6-9, 6-7, 6-6, 6-5. But our guys took it to them pretty well in the first half. They weren’t intimidated, we attacked their bigs and kicked the ball out. I liked the guys’ energy and the aggression they brought to the game. Even though we lost, there were a lot of things from that game we could build off from.”

Mendoza expressed confidence the team would rebound after a disheartening 56-33 loss to Christopher last Saturday in the Bob Hagen Tournament at Gilroy High. The Cougars outscored the Balers 25-5 in the first quarter en route to the runaway victory.

“That was the worst quarter we’ve played all season,” Mendoza said. “We turned it around in the second quarter, but we couldn’t overcome that first quarter. We really haven’t played our best game of the season yet, but I think soon we’ll have a good game as a team. We’re at our best when we get out in the running lanes and lock it down defensively. I think our chemistry has grown really quick, so that’s a good thing and will help us (improve throughout the season).”

In addition to the players already mentioned, the Balers have Johnny Vigilante, Ryan Amaya, Gio De La Hoz, Ellih Pascua, Paul Yamaoka, Bryan Harris, Isaiah Rabago and Ricardo Navarro on the roster. Mendoza started playing basketball at age 6 and has made gradual improvement to become a solid player. In the off-season, he often practiced with teammate Pascua, a junior backup point guard. The two went to Cerra Vista and worked on their game, ending nearly every session with a quick 1-on-1 contest.

“We’d go back and forth, but I think I got him on the majority of those games,” said Mendoza, who noted the strong play of Freeman, Hatchett, Aranda, Freidt and Moisoto.

San Benito’s foes in the Mission Division include Christopher, Monte Vista Christian, North Monterey County, Seaside and Robert Louis Stevenson. Mendoza said he hasn’t done much talking during the games thus far because he needs to play better before doing it. Talking is part of Mendoza’s game, though he is pretty judicious when he chooses to deliver some verbal jabs to his opponents.

“I haven’t done it this year, but there will be times if you’re playing well, you give them a little, ‘Ooh, aah, you can’t guard me,'” he said. “It’s fun when other teams start talking, because then the competitor in you really comes out.”

The Balers must continue to coalesce if they hope to contend for a Mission Division title. As long as they stay together even amid losing streaks, they’ll be fine. Their pregame activities in the locker room and on the court are no different than thousands of high school teams across the country, and yet they aim to use those moments to build cohesion. In the locker room, Mendoza said Breen picks the play list, which usually consists of hip-hop songs from Roddy Ricch, Drake and Lil Baby.  

“It’s fun playing with this team,” Mendoza said. “We’re looking to play our best soon and make some noise.”

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