San Benito High girls tennis coach Ed Cecena didn’t know what to expect entering the fall 2021 season. After all, some players who would’ve usually participated last year opted out in the Covid spring season.
But Cecena and trusted assistant coach Rick Espino have been pleasantly surprised with not only the increased numbers on the squad but also the team’s on-court performance. The Haybalers entered the week at 7-5 overall and 5-3 in Pacific Coast League Mission Division play.
“The girls are working hard and doing better than I expected,” said Cecena, who in his 21st season is the longest tenured coach at San Benito High. “Overall, we’re quite happy with the season we’re having. Some of the freshmen and sophomores are showing a lot of enthusiasm, which you hope carries over into their future play.”
The Balers carried 28 players spread out over the junior varsity and varsity teams at the beginning of the season, one of the largest groups Cecena has had. Carmela Clark is the team’s top player and has plenty of tournament experience.
“Carmela is a strong player, physically fit and plays a power game,” Cecena said. “When she wins, she is able to look impressive.”
Clark and No. 2 singles player Millie Lezama are the only seniors on the team, and Cecena is hoping the returners for next year work diligently on their games in the off-season to improve and come back stronger than ever.
“We have a lot of hope for the next couple of years,” Cecena said. “We have a lot of girls in the program and some girls will pan out and some girls will fall by the wayside, but because of the large numbers we have there will be a few that stick with the program and want to get better and make great contributions.”
Cecena is high on juniors Fatima Ojeda and Cassie Rayas, who parlayed solid spring seasons into this fall season. They also kept honing their skills and continued to compete in summer practices, Cecena said. Lezama said Clark has been someone to look up to because of her skillset, experience and competitive demeanor.
“Carmela can help when I hit errors and is kind of like another coach for us, so we’re grateful to have that,” Lezama said.
Lezama has enjoyed her senior season after all the uncertainty in how Covid-19 affected high school sports. The experience with her teammates has been both fruitful and enjoyable.
“I’ve improved as a player and as a team we like to do little cheers and give little speeches and pep talks to keep ourselves motivated,” she said. “I’ve grown as a person and player in my time here.”
Lezama opted not to play in her freshman year because she tended to be shy and found the adjustment to one of the largest schools in the Central Coast Section a tough transition. However, by her sophomore year she was more comfortable and since then has really matured.
She said the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program has been a vehicle for her progression, helping her with the college application process, overall schoolwork and defining things down the line.
“AVID helped me become more aware of my future career goals and path,” she said. “I needed more information and help through the application process, and it really helped me apply for a school like New Mexico State, which I’ve been accepted to.”
Lezama and her teammates hope to finish the season strong. Lezama counts the Notre Dame-Salinas and North Salinas matches as the highlight of her season because she tried new skills and techniques she hadn’t quite fully used before, and gained confidence from utilizing them in a match.