Balers junior Seryna Esparza is a power-hitting threat. Photo by Robert Eliason.

San Benito High softball coach Andrew Barragan has never been more excited to start a season. That’s saying something considering he’s coached no less than a half-dozen players at the school who have gone on to play for Division I programs. 

The Haybalers, who play their season-opener against St. Francis on Saturday, have only two seniors on a 15-player roster, which usually isn’t a recipe for success. However, considering that freshmen in this sport enter the program ready to make an immediate contribution—a byproduct of starting travel ball at an early age—and that San Benito has four potential freshmen who will start along with several returning starters from the 2020 team, it’s no wonder Barragan conveyed a sense of joy as he talked about the upcoming season. 

Equally impactful, the cancellation of the 2020 season after just two games have whetted the coaches and players’ appetite to get back on the field for official game action.  

“I haven’t had a team this offensive since we had Callee Heen, Suzy Brookshire and Brit Rossi (all played or are currently playing at D-1 programs), and that was three players,” he said. “I have six right now who at any moment can leave the yard or go gap to gap.”

The biggest question mark—not from a talent standpoint but of a development one—comes in the circle, where sophomore Sophia Mariottini takes over as the ace. Barragan was planning to give Mariottini some innings as pitcher last year, but those plans were derailed by the cancellation of the season. 

“This is the first year in which she is the headliner in the circle,” Barragan said. “It’s her show now. She has her work cut out for her, but I think she has the tools and resources to become a good pitcher this season. And I’m looking forward to her junior and senior year when I think she can develop into a great pitcher.” 

Mariottini has been working with former Balers standout Drew Barragan in practice, which Andrew hopes will speed up her development. Freshman Madeline Bermudez is projected to hit leadoff and should wreak havoc on the bases. A lefty who can slap and hit for power, Bermudez will play left field and the infield as well. 

“She reminds me of a Brit Rossi who hit gap to gap,” Barragan said. 

Junior center fielder Angelic Diaz has gotten stronger, hits for power and is effective hitting behind runners, which makes her an ideal No. 2 hitter, Barragan said. Junior first baseman Seryna Esparza, another batter from the left side, hits third in the lineup and possesses the ability to go gap to gap and the opposite field. 

“She is such a big presence at the plate and has learned to go with the outside pitch and shoot it to the left side,” Barragan said. 

Another outstanding junior, catcher Giana Perez, hits cleanup and will DH the first couple of weeks as she is recovering from a shoulder injury. In a March 30 practice, Barragan said the team put on a fireworks show in BP, led by Perez. 

“She has really elevated her game,” Barragan said. 

Emma Gutierrez is one of four freshmen who will start or see significant innings this season. Having honed her game playing for Sorcerer Softball—one of the top club programs in Northern California—third baseman Gutierrez is no stranger to facing top-notch competition. 

“She hits for power, runs well and has a great arm,” Barragan said. “She’s one of four future superstars here (out of the freshmen class).”

Senior infielder Kaiya Dickens has been a stalwart on the team and is expected to have her best season yet. 

“I’m looking for some big things from her offensively in the middle of the lineup,” Barragan said. “But more than that, Kaiya is the overall leader of the team and has mentored some of the younger players.”

Freshman right fielder Isabella Buzzetta gives the Balers another hitting threat from the left side. But her greatest strength lies in her speed and ability to get around the bases and track down balls in the outfield. 

“She can flat-out fly,” Barragan said. “In practice, I’m hitting balls to her in right field and she tracks every single one of them down. She’s a short, little girl, but she can hit for power. She put on a power hitting display at practice (on Tuesday). I’m excited to see her grow in this program.”

In Dominique Oliveira, San Benito has a freshman starting at catcher for the first time in 10 years, Barragan said. Possessing a cannon for an arm, Oliveira works with Annie Aldrete, the former Cal standout who is now the Director of Player Development and Co-Head Strength/Conditioning Trainer at Monterey Player Development. 

“We are getting a high-caliber player because Annie Aldrete has been her mentor the last two, three years,” Barragan said. “Dominique can do everything. She has no fear and things don’t bother her like they do other freshmen. She doesn’t take anything from anybody, and is just a serious baller. She is not a big girl at all, but she hits for ridiculous power for someone her size. At catcher, she can throw from her knees at any point in time and back door runners, you name it.”

Mariottini is the projected No. 9 hitter and Barragan likes her ability to run, hit and advance runners. Outside of Esparza and Perez, Barragan said competition will be fierce for every position and spot in the lineup throughout the season. 

“The rest of the girls are neck and neck and from game to game I don’t know who is going to start or sit out,” Barragan said. 

That means players like freshman Jaelynn Corona, sophomore Lindsay Platero and junior Shanelle Cavazos will battle for starting spots, with Ariana Rivera, Laila Rueda and Aniesa Osorio providing depth and the ability to make an impact when called upon.

“Jaelynn is a lefty and will be a pest to our opponents because once she puts the ball on the ground, she’s on base,” Barragan said. “She can bunt, slap and will be valuable for our team. Lindsay is a speedster in left field and Shanelle plays third and will be platooning a lot because of how she handles the bat. With Aniesa, she’s a platooning infielder and very valuable for us.”

Barragan said he’s been impressed with the players’ dedication to get stronger and stay in shape. Since the start of February, they’ve been going to Elva Ayala’s Body Ade fitness gym at 6:15am, three days a week. Their sessions include light yoga, which Barragan said plays a key role in injury prevention by keeping their limbs and joints supple. The players also get in strength and conditioning work that Barragan expects will translate to on-field success. 

“They love going to Body Ade and then they come out to the field all energized, motivated and ready to go,” he said. “Elva has these girls in shape, no doubt.”

Barragan said the players must be in shape because he plans on them finishing with over 70 stolen bases this season. The last time the Balers had that many thefts was in 2016, which coincidentally is the last time they hoisted up a Central Coast Section championship trophy. 

“That’s why I wanted our players to work with Body Ade because we’re going to be running a lot like the good old Run TMC (Warriors) days,” Barragan said. 

According to Barragan, a lot of the team’s success will hinge on how fast the freshmen mature and adjust to the high school varsity level. While they’re accustomed to playing for a competitive travel ball club, there is a big adjustment playing against older girls. 

“They’re ready from a talent standpoint, but a little overwhelmed right now mentally,” Barragan said. “Because now you’re facing an 18U gold pitcher, and that’s what they’re getting used to. They’re deer in the headlights right now, but they’re adjusting well.”

Balers senior Kaiya Dickens is a leader on the team, reliable defensively and has been mentoring the underclassmen. Photo by Robert Eliason.
San Benito’s Giana Perez looks to have another strong season. She has been putting on a “fireworks show” in BP, Barragan said. Photo by Robert Eliason.
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Emanuel Lee primarily covers sports for Weeklys/NewSVMedia's Los Gatan publication. Twenty years of journalism experience and recipient of several writing awards from the California News Publishers Association. Emanuel has run eight marathons with a PR of 3:13.40, counts himself as a true disciple of Jesus Christ and loves spending time with his wife and their two lovely daughters, Evangeline and Eliza.


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