San Benito's Heather Smith, seen here in a 2012 CCS playoff match, has had a particularly strong 2014 season, just like the rest of her teammates.

The San Benito High girls water polo team has already won more games this season than in the last two years combined.
It goes without saying that the Haybalers are having one of their most successful seasons in recent memory. However, one gets the feeling that San Benito—which finished the regular season with a 16-3 overall record and a 11-2 mark in the Monterey Bay League Gabilan Division—has plenty of unfinished business to complete.
The Balers, who start league playoff action on Tuesday, would love nothing more than a third shot at three-time defending champion Soquel, which won both of the teams’ regular-season contests by scores of 6-4 and 9-7, respectively.
“If we play Soquel again, I’m not worried about the physical part of the game for the girls, but the mental part,” Balers coach Ronni Gautschi said. “The last time we played them, things were awful. Mentally, we just fell apart.”
Although the Balers have their eyes set on Soquel, they can’t get overconfident or a third matchup with the Knights (20-3 overall, 11-0 in league) might not happen. Unlike most or all of the best teams in the Central Coast Section that has up to 10 extra players on the bench, San Benito doesn’t have that luxury.
The Balers literally play eight athletes because they have been the core group that’s been together for the last three years.
There’s a noticeable drop-off in experience after that, so the only time Gautschi goes into her bench is during tournament action, when the team has to play multiple games in a day.
Gautschi plans on having a deep bench by next season, as she will probably be able to get more players competing year-round and capable of making an impact at the varsity level.
This San Benito squad isn’t just special because of its won-loss record, though the stockpiling of wins is impressive. No, the true beauty in this unit is everyone plays a vital role because there isn’t a superstar on the roster.
However, there are several solid players who play with tremendous chemistry. Although Erin Hepner and Grace Larson lead the team in scoring, contributions have come from across the board.
“Hayleigh (Smith) plays really great and amazing defense at hole-set, and Heather Smith makes sure everyone is OK and happy, which is pretty inspiring,” Gautschi said.
Goalie Rachel Smithee has been sensational in goal at times, using her long 6-foot-1 frame to deny opponents time and again. Smithee’s understanding of the game should only improve under the tutelage of Lorenzo Cenci, who is a former goalie for Italy’s national team.
Cenci is a family friend of the Gautschis and recently was in town visiting, so Gautschi had him give Smithee and the rest of the team a couple of pointers. Gautschi hopes Cenci’s intense demeanor will rub off on her players, who admittedly are tired because Gautschi has them on a rigorous swimming regimen—by design.
Gautschi said the plan was to build the girls’ stamina and endurance so they would peak conditioning-wise for the MBL tournament and another potential matchup with Soquel.
That’s why near the end of last week the first-year San Benito coach and former Live Oak and San Diego State standout and a pro in Italy’s top league eased up on the intensity and volume of the conditioning sessions, giving the players time to recover for the league playoffs.
If the matchup with Soquel occurs, Gautschi knows the team must do a better job of defending Soquel’s hole-set, and just as important, focus on themselves.
“I just think if the girls play their game and stop worrying about everything else, they’re going to do well,” she said. “I don’t know if Soquel has this intimidation factor because of years of winning, but we just have to have fun. We play our best when we’re having fun.”

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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