Haybalers off to a fast start

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Balers junior Kaiya Dickens has been her usual sensational self in leading the team. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Jay Trejo is one of the more underrated players in the Pacific Coast League—and that’s just fine by her. The San Benito High senior center has been instrumental in the team’s fast start (the Haybalers were 7-2 through Dec. 26). A three-year starter, Trejo does a lot of things that don’t show up in the stat box.

By playing tough, fundamental defense and communicating to her teammates where they need to be defensively, Trejo has played a huge role in San Benito’s defensive prowess. Through the team’s first nine games, San Benito had held opponents to 34 points or less five times.

“My role on the team I would say is more as a defensive player,” Trejo said. “I’m known for blocking shots and rotating to wherever we have to be. For the new, incoming players, I make sure they’re in the right spot. I’ll make sure to tell them to cut here or don’t forget to rotate. If there is a screen coming up on the right side, I’ll let them know to either get around the screen or that I’m here to help.”

Trejo and junior Kaiya Dickens are three-year starters, and the two provide stability and leadership. Dickens, a standout power forward, is a ferocious rebounder and can score from the inside or outside. Dickens scored 24 points against Eastside Prep and 20 against Los Altos in games earlier this season.

“She’s been as good as we’ve had the last couple of years,” Haybalers coach Mitch Burley said. “She’s gotten stronger and more productive.”

Said Trejo: “Kaiya has always been good and yet she’ll still do something amazing during a game that will surprise you because you don’t see many players who are able to do what she does. We look to her to score as she is our go-to player.”

Freshman Jocelyn alexander has made quite the impression starting at point guard. The position had been manned for the last four years by 2019 graduate Alyssa Ito, who also started as a freshman at the point. Alexander is a different player, but her impact has been felt in more ways than one.

“She’s been doing pretty good,” Burley said. “She’s got good size, handles the ball pretty well and ha a good basketball IQ.”

Ema Alfaro, a junior forward, is capable of scoring the ball and being able to finish. Drew Barragan, a senior shooting guard, has done a nice job defensively and shoots the ball well. Burley said this year’s team has superior depth and interchangeable parts compared to the squads in recent years. Junior guard Harlie Craig, sophomore forward Mia Villegas, junior forward Katelyn Sotelo and senior guard Francesca Giannotta all come into games ready to be difference-makers. Sotelo suffered a broken foot last year, but has returned and usually goes in for Dickens. Sotelo has shown flashes of solid play, totaling seven points against North Monterey County and dishing out three assists in rapid-fire fashion.

“We’re a little deeper this year,” Burley said. “In the first three or four games, Mia was our leading scorer coming off the bench. She’s a good athlete and does a lot of things well. She’s finished games because of her rebounding and ability to score inside. She’s my backup four and five, but she’s finished games at the wing position, too. Harlie is a capable ball-handler, can play point guard and the wing. Fran comes in for Ema at the three and is a good, aggressive defender. This year it seems like everybody can handle the ball a little bit, so when teams press us, we’re able to zigzag it up the court with passes. A couple of times (this season), the ball never touched the floor. It was pass-pass-pass, layup. And that is where the luxury of having players who can handle the ball and finish makes a difference.”

Burley also mentioned the players have embraced the zone defense this season, which has made it more effective and could be a key factor in why the Balers have been stout defensively.

A pair of junior guards—Anahi Vasquez and Makayla Banuelos—along with sophomore guard Gia Felice are capable reserve players. Felice won’t be able to play until Jan. 9, and Burley said she’ll be able to help with the team’s defensive pressure.

“I think we’re a better overall team because of our depth, and I think our overall record will be better than last year,” Burley said. “But as far as league, I don’t know if we’ll finish higher than third. North Salinas and Salinas are usually really good and Monte Vista Christian is capable. We’ll have to play the games and see.”

Even though Trejo is known for her defense, she also showed the ability to score when she tallied seven points in just over a minute in a game against San Lorenzo Valley on Dec. 5. The 5-foot-9 Trejo started her scoring surge with a layup, after which the team made a defensive stop. Another layup followed by another stop allowed Trejo to drain a 3-point attempt, giving her seven points in succession. Normally reserved on the court, Trejo couldn’t contain her emotion.

“I was pretty excited and jumping around,” she said. “My focus is helping us get stops, especially in close games. I can score sometimes, but that is not my main role.”

However, Burley said he wouldn’t mind seeing Trejo get more offensive-minded. Granted, Trejo is averaging five to six blocks a game, an impressive stat for any player, let alone someone who doesn’t tower above the competition.

“I tell Jay to shoot more than she does,” Burley said. “I want her to score more, but she is an amazing defensive player. We laugh about her long arms, but it makes her taller than she is. She’s the big eraser in the back.”

From a team standpoint, Trejo counts the Los Altos game as the highlight of her season, in part because the Balers had to grind things out at the end, communicate well and make some clutch shots against a solid opponent. In terms of her best individual performance, Trejo points to the Eastside Prep game. San Benito was down by two points and needed to get the ball back with around a minute left in the contest.

“I knew we had to double team this one player, and it was Jocelyn and I who did it,” Trejo said. “We ended up getting the ball back as Ema got the steal and got it to me before I was fouled. I made two free throws to tie the game and send it to overtime.”

San Benito ended up winning 52-40, one of its signature victories of the season. Trejo has been a starter since her sophomore year, but she never thought she would be in that role in her second year of high school. Trejo was planning on trying out for the junior varsity team when Burley told her to come out for the varsity squad.

“The next thing you know, I was starting on the varsity,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow, coach.’ He had so much confidence in me and believed in me, and I just never wanted to let him down.”

As expected, Trejo was a bundle of nerves for her first-ever varsity game. The nerves never subsided for the duration of the game, but Trejo got more comfortable as the season wore on.

“In that first game, I knew all the plays and just had to take some deep breaths and tell myself that I had this,” she said.

Trejo has developed into a superior player, both as a shooter and defender. She credits the improvement to playing under Gavilan College coach Erik Nelson for a Gilroy AAU team last summer.

“I had a really good year, probably my best defensive games ever,” she said. “I probably averaged eight blocks a game and got a lot of assists, steals and tips. But I think there is always room for improvement, little by little each day.”

Interestingly enough, no one else in Trejo’s family has a sports background. Trejo started playing basketball at 4 or 5 and took up soccer a couple of years later.

“Some people say I must have skipped 30 generations or something (from the last person to play sports in my family history),” she said.

Trejo counts her grandma, Esper Prieto, as her role model. Prieto grew up with nine—count ’em, nine—siblings, and always knew what to say to Trejo and how to say it.

“She’s always been there for me when I needed her most,” Trejo said. “My grandma knows how to talk to me, if that makes any sense. She’s told me so many people are rooting for me, and that I just have to have confidence in myself. She’s there to watch every home game and even will go on the road to see some away games. I admire my grandma because she had to be mature at a young age and help feed her siblings, babysit and start working from a very young age. But it never stopped her from doing what she wanted to do. She told me to never quit and to follow your dreams. And that’s what I’m going to do.”