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Coming off arguably its greatest season in school history, the San Benito High girls’ water polo team hit some rough water just three weeks into the 2013 season.
The Haybalers started the season 0-5 overall and 0-3 in Monterey Bay Gabilan Division play before earning their first win on Thursday, prevailing 8-3 over visiting Santa Cruz.
“It’s really a great relief for the team,” said Riley Drexler, who scored two goals in the victory. “Now we can focus more on playing our game, and feel less stressed trying to get that first win.”
The Haybalers won their first-ever Central Coast Section playoff match last year, beating Palo Alto, 9-8, in the opening round of the Division I playoffs. Of course, that squad had record-breaking goal-scorer Caitlin Shafer, who tallied 213 goals to break the single-season Monterey Bay League record.
Shafer is now playing at Loyola Marymount University, and a team simply doesn’t replace a player who scored 485 career goals. However, if San Benito coach Hayley Vandercook is supposed to be worried, she certainly isn’t showing it.
“Our team is getting better at learning how to step up in Caitlin’s place,” said Vandercook, who is in her sixth year coaching the team. “We lost our top two players, but we have some very good players coming back. I’m confident they’re only going to improve with each game.”
Especially Drexler, who only started playing the sport in her freshman year. The junior utility/two-meter defender decided to try out for water polo because she definitely prefers moving in the water compared with moving on dry land.
“I hate running,” she said. “Even when I played soccer, I was a goalie. I just hate running.”
Drexler scored both of her goals against Santa Cruz in the second period, the first of which came on a breakaway after she stole the ball at mid-pool. Moments later, Drexler displayed a nice touch, lofting a beautiful floater from eight meters away over the Santa Cruz goalie to make it 3-0 with 5:40 left until halftime.
Drexler then delivered the assist on a give-and-go sequence with Erin Hepner to make it 4-0 at the intermission. Santa Cruz finally scored its first goal with 6:45 left in the third, but San Benito ended the period with three unanswered tallies to essentially seal the outcome.
“Our defense is usually good, but I think against Santa Cruz we were really good,” Drexler said. “We got in their passing lanes and shut them down from scoring.”
The Balers received goals from five different players, including two from super sophomore Grace Larson. Hepner, Heather Smith, Hayleigh Smith and goalie Rachel Smithee are expected to play vital roles this season.
Vandercook said the 6-foot-1 Smithee is a Division I prospect, and the junior certainly looked the part against the Cardinals, repeatedly stuffing their scoring chances.
“We’re definitely lucky to have Rachel back in the cage,” Vandercook said.
The Balers need to rely on their speed and keep their passing crisp to move up in the Gabilan Division, which Vandercook fully expects her team to do.
“This convincing win over Santa Cruz shows we’re putting it all together,” she said. “I feel good where we’re headed. Our record doesn’t show much right now, but I have all the confidence in the world the girls are going to be right where they need to be later in the season.”
In a short period of time, Drexler has proven to be a potential breakout star. A key reserve on last year’s team, Drexler has made dramatic improvements in every facet of her game after her club season playing for Otter Bay in Monterey.
And to think: It was a little over two years ago when Drexler had never felt so nervous when she tried out for the water polo junior varsity team.
“At that point I didn’t even know how to tread water,” Drexler said. “I was just learning the rules, and hadn’t swam in a while. Afterwards, I was dead. I just went home and slept.”
Fortunately for the Balers, Drexler’s love for the game only grew from that point on.