Mired in a three-year slump, it’s no wonder there seems to be a renewed sense of optimism with first-year coach Anthony Butler at the helm. Butler, the former Balers’ standout who coached the junior varsity team for the last six years, has built relationships with several of the players as they have made their way up to the varsity level.
“He’s a really good coach,” senior shooting guard Oliver Garcia said. “Practices are more focused, and I’ve already noticed players are trying harder. Overall, we’re going to hustle a lot more than we did last year, and that’s a big part of winning games.”
The Balers open the season on Thursday against Christopher High in the Alisal Tournament. Garcia figures to play a key role in the Balers’ potential turnaround, as he is capable of scoring from 3-point range or getting to the basket off dribble penetration. But it’s the former where Garcia hopes to best make his impact.
“Making 3-point shots is my job,” Garcia said. “I think my shot is better this year. I’m stronger and more confident, and shooting is all about confidence. You have to shoot it like you want it.”
However, Garcia also helps the team in other ways.
“He’ll get a lot of points in transition and the fast break,” Butler said. “He’s really quick and smart with his hands, and is like Isaiah (Bueno) in that he reads where the ball is going and will get steals in the open court.”
In Bueno, the team has a dynamic senior point guard who Butler said possesses great vision, creates havoc on defense and creates scoring chances for his teammates. Senior Mikey Esparza started at small forward in the team’s Sportsmanship Game against Soquel, and his versatility on defense—Esparza can guard multiple positions on the floor—will allow Butler to play a variety of defenses.
“Mikey also crashes the boards really hard and leaves all of his emotions on the floor,” Butler said. “That is what I like about him—he shows you everything.”
Junior power forward Hunter Fu has impressed onlookers with his sheer athleticism and ability to make plays on both ends of the floor.
“Hunter is lightning quick and fun to watch,” Butler said. “He’s really aggressive and can get into small spaces and score. His speed offensively and defensively is definitely going to be put to use.”
Senior center Gonzalo Montero should help the Balers control the boards—“Gonzo has done a great job of being aggressive on the boards,” Butler said—with fellow senior post Gabe Ward expected to excel in that area as well.
Ward had a handful of solid games last season in which he made an impact in the paint, and he should be stronger this season. Butler said senior Ryan Jameson can play any of the three front court positions, and fellow senior guard Mason Marquez—both players have baseball scholarships to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and the University of Seattle, respectively—will add to the team after not playing last season.
“Ryan has put on some muscle and Mason pushes the ball and is super aggressive on the defensive end,” Butler said.
Garcia said junior Jordan Yeager and Sean Slavich have the potential to be knockdown shooters from the perimeter, which would open things up for the team’s penetrators to get to the basket. Butler said there’s enough talent on the roster to make some serious noise in the MBL’s top division. Jacob Burley handles the ball well, and with 15 players on the roster, the Balers have their deepest team in recent memory.
The Balers expect to improve in every phase of the game, especially compared to last season, when they went 1-11 in league play and finished in a tie for last place with Christopher. Two years ago, the Balers went 2-10 in finishing in last all alone. And three years ago, they went 3-9 in Gabilan play, finishing in second to last place.
Butler said there were a couple of key takeaways from the Sportsmanship Game against Soquel on Nov. 20.
“The biggest thing is we want to be aggressive in pushing the ball,” he said. “We have a lot of great athletes in our program, and we want to take advantage of that. We just need to work on our passing and taking care of the basketball by making smart decisions in the open court.”
Garcia, who counts Bueno, Jameson and Marquez as his best friends, said the players talked all summer on turning things around.
“We want to bring excitement back to Baler basketball,” Garcia said. “We want to at least be competitive this year. No more getting blown out by 30 points. We can be competitive and strong.”