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Despite inexperience, San Benito boys volleyball team produces stellar season

Balers senior Derek Sandoval was a four-year varsity player and rock-solid in directing the team's offense and a potent server as well. San Benito advanced to the CCS quarterfinals this season, tying a program record. File photo.

It was a season to remember for the San Benito High boys volleyball team. Not only did the Haybalers win a Central Coast Section playoff match for the first time since 2013, they won an in-season tournament, the silver division in the Harbor Surf City Invitational, for the first time. 

San Benito also placed second in the gold division of its own tournament, the Baler Classic, its best finish in David Ventura’s six years as the head coach. For those reasons, Ventura said the season was a tremendous success. 

“It was a special season,” he said. “I really enjoyed coaching these guys. The mental toughness of this team was probably the best of any of the teams I’ve coached.”

San Benito finished the season 19-15 after a three-set loss to Carlmont of Belmont in a Division I playoff quarterfinal match on May 9. The Balers, who finished in fourth place in the Pacific Coast League’s Gabilan Division with a 6-6 mark, swept PCAL Pacific Division champion Watsonville in the opening round. 

The team surpassed Ventura’s expectations this season, in part because its athleticism made up for its lack of volleyball playing experience. Case in point, Tyler Pacheco. The senior—who is more known for being the quarterback on the football team and dunking basketballs at the recent Central Coast All Star Game—was playing competitive volleyball for the first time in his career and flourished, leading the team with 301 kills. 

With an impressive vertical leap and a competitive will to match, Pacheco had success terminating the ball against more experienced opponents. He hit .273, a smidge higher than Victor Villafuerte for the second and third best marks on the team among the primary outside and middle hitters. 

When the Balers were passing well and in system, Pacheco and Villafuerte were delivering haymakers to the competition, scoring points early and often. 

“You can teach a kid to hit a ball a lot easier than passing it,” Ventura said. “We had a bunch of volleyball rookies even though we had a lot of seniors. How did we do so well with a bunch of first-year players? It’s very unusual.”

Senior setter Derek Sandoval, a four-year varsity player, was once again the team’s glue. Steady and solid, Sandoval routinely delivered accurate sets and ran the offense to near perfection at times. He finished the year with 685 assists, one of the highest single-season totals in program history. 

Sandoval also led the Balers in serving, dishing out 32 service aces. Libero Nolan Foster was sensational defensively, passing well and coming up with digs most players wouldn’t get to. Foster led the team with 226 digs, a .227 passing percentage and was effective serving as well. 

Middle blockers Michael Curto and Rafi Allen along with Foster will be the team’s top returners next season. Curto led the team with a .302 hitting percentage and was second with 36 blocks. Foster provided stellar defense in the back. 

“Nolan is definitely the anchor of this team,” Ventura said. “And our middles have a lot of potential, especially Michael Curto, who I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do next year for sure.”

Foster earned PCAL first team honors, Sandoval second team and Allen the sportsmanship team.

Villafuerte, an outside hitter, had a team-high 45 blocks. Ventura said the team missed Joe Fata, a versatile and intelligent player who suffered a season-ending injury just before the season’s halfway point. Fata, who is headed to Stanford University on academics, played libero and outside hitter. 

“He’s the guy I would like to give a shout out to because when we lost him, our team took a big hit,” Ventura said. “We filled the position, but we didn’t fill the hole. Joe Fata is a guy who has a sense of where the ball is like no player I’ve seen in a while. He’s always where the ball was supposed to hit the ground, so it didn’t if he was on the court.”

The team’s highlight was its tournament play and a five-set loss to co-league champion Christopher in their second division match on April 5. The Cougars had easily swept the Balers the first time around, but a vocal and pumped San Benito contingent played one of its best matches of the season before finally falling in five tough sets against a team that earned a berth in the top CCS Open Division. 

“I haven’t seen our team that excited during a match for a long time,” Ventura said. “That was a special match for sure. Nolan had 25 digs and his passing was almost perfect. He had a huge game.”

San Benito played nine matches against teams that were league champions, a big reason why it earned the No. 5 seed in the D1 playoffs. 

“Getting a win in CCS was a very big thing and we were all happy with that,” Ventura said. 

Tyler Pacheco caught on fast in his first and only season with San Benito’s volleyball team. Photo by Raul Ebio.
Libero and defensive standout Nolan Foster led San Benito High with 226 digs this season. File photo.

Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at elee@weeklys.com