Even though the San Benito High girls volleyball team had a 3-5 record through its first eight matches, Haybalers coach Emily Tonascia wasn’t overly concerned. After all, San Benito had faced several tough opponents, including a couple of traditional Central Coast Section powers. The Balers could’ve easily been 5-3, having lost two matches that went the full five sets, including having a two sets to none lead on Woodside in a Sept. 5 non-league match.
“(Against Woodside) we had a couple of players not firing on all cylinders, but I still think for who we had on the court, we played really well,” Tonascia said. “I’m expecting really great things out of this year’s team. I schedule our preseason (non-league matches) really tough on purpose so by the time we get in league, we would have worked out most of the kinks in our game.”
San Benito didn’t have senior middle blocker Roxanne Black or junior right side Sofia Villanueva for the Woodside game, which meant the team wasn’t at full strength. Tonascia said the team has superior firepower compared to a year ago, which will allow the squad to terminate points with more consistency. Black’s game has matured, as she is able to see the court, place the ball and finish a point.
“She’s not swinging with her eyes closed, which some hitters basically do,” Tonascia said.
Nicole Miller, a returning junior outside hitter, also packs plenty of firepower in her swing and can take over a game on a moment’s notice. Tonascia is also high on sophomore Mia Villegas, who can finish points while also possessing solid passing ability. Makenna Deeth, a junior middle blocker, has also made strong strides in her game from last season when she played on the junior varsity team. Fellow junior Clare Skardoutos possesses a versatile game that allows Tonascia to use her in a variety of situations.
“She can pretty much do anything,” Tonascia said. “She has played the middle, the right side and has that attitude of, ‘Put me in coach, I’m ready to go.’ It’s nice to have someone so versatile on your team.”
In addition to having superior firepower on this year’s squad, Tonascia said defense could be a particular source of strength. She pointed to players like Villegas, Kiana Heredia, Francesca Giannotta and Abigayle Horn as being difference-makers defensively. Setters Jaya Waller and Maya Garcia can always be counted upon to set the tone and challenge their teammates to play at a higher level.
They’re both comfortable running the court, and against Woodside Waller set from the front row and Garcia from the back row. Garcia and Waller are both versatile, which gives Tonasica the option to utilize different looks against the opposition. Tonascia has liked the fact that players have stepped up in the absence of key players early in the season. Junior Haley Parsons has played on the outside and right side, and Skardoutos has played well on the right side with Villanueva being sidelined. The Balers blend a mix of veteran and young talent, no surprise considering the volleyball team at San Benito has been a perennial force and shows no signs of letting up anytime soon.
“We’ve got a lot of young talent, so it’s exciting moving forward but also exciting for this year because I think we have a really strong team,” Tonascia said. “This year our returning hitters are more mature, and that’s exciting and cool to see.”
The Balers’ tough non-league schedule included matches against Los Gatos, Los Altos, Cupertino, Woodside and Aptos. They have two more matches before starting Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division play on Sept. 19 against Notre Dame-Salinas. San Benito plays Branham and Live Oak before its league-opening showdown against the Spirits, who are always in contention to win the league championship—just like the Balers.
Two days after that match, the Balers play in the Harbor Tournament, which always features an ultra-competitive field.
San Benito boasts a rich tradition in girls volleyball, as it is the premier sport among girls—along with softball—in Hollister. The talent flows deep, and because of that, the Balers usually can reload rather than rebuild. That prevents the highs and lows most high schools go through in terms of won-loss records, as the Balers have been remarkably consistent over the years, having won 20 or more matches in seven of the last eight years. In fact, you would have to go all the way back to the 2011 season to find the last San Benito team that finished with a losing record (it was 16-20 that season).