Even after the San Benito High girls basketball team lost 46-28 to Los Gatos High in the quarterfinals of the Central Coast Section Division I playoffs on Feb. 22, it didn’t dampen coach Mitch Burley’s spirits.
“I was totally satisfied with the season,” said Burley, who completed his 10th season as the San Benito coach. “I told them they’re the hardest working team I’ve had so they taught me that and I really appreciate that because we’ve had girls play hard, but these girls took it up a notch and it showed in their effort. It was great. I had an absolute blast.”
The Haybalers (18-7) ran up against a top-seeded Los Gatos (22-3) team that has given many opponents fits this season. The Wildcats put this one away early, leading 14-6 after the first quarter and extending the lead to 30-10 at the half.
“Los Gatos is just the longer, taller team, and the thing is they’re not only tall but they’re skillful,” Burley said. “They’re bigger at every spot by a lot.”
Balers junior Emmia Rivera had a game-high 14 points, using her quickness, dribbling ability and ability to shift directions on a moment’s notice to get shots off against the much taller Los Gatos defenders.
“At halftime I told Emmia you seem to be the one who could get by them, so the second half is yours,” Burley said. “So go for it and she did it and it was fun to watch.”
Bailey Cotter was limited to a season-low six points, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. The Wildcats put their best defender, 6-foot sophomore Belle Bramer, to hound Cotter.
“We’re marveling at the girl guarding Bailey,” Burley said. “Just as skilled but I don’t know how many more inches taller with longer arms. So it’s hard to overcome that.”
Los Gatos coach Sara Quilici Giles praised Cotter’s game.
“(Cotter) is amazing,” Quilici Giles said. “In my mind, that was the difference in the game. I watched a bunch of film on the Haybalers and the difference is No. 11. She’s so smart and so shifty and such a good basketball player with such a high basketball IQ that I was thinking would probably be the best basketball player we’ve seen all year. And luckily Belle is Belle. She’s spectacular in a way on defense.”
Burley noted the team outscored Los Gatos 18-16 in the second half, which was nothing to scoff at.
“It’s not like Los Gatos wasn’t trying,” he said. “So I appreciated the girls’ effort.”
Burley will have this season seared in his mind because it gave him joy to see the likes of seniors Gia Felice and Mia Villegas competing as if every game was their last, and another senior, Genesis Moreta, come into her own with a breakout season that showcased her playmaking ability.
Even though it will be tough to lose that senior trio, the potential is there for the team to make an even deeper playoff run next season. That’s because San Benito is projected to return the dynamite play of Cotter, the ball-handling whiz that is Rivera, the rock-solid floor presence of Jocelyn Alexander, and, oh yeah, reinforcements from a junior varsity team that went undefeated this season.
“We’ll have some skill coming in from the JV team,” Burley said. “They were real good. It’s great and we’ll see what happens next year. We’ll see who plays in the off-season so we’re obviously looking forward to it.”
Lindsay Platero, Gracie Skow, Elena Nino and Juliann Donati are all juniors and at different points in the season saw minutes and had a positive impact on the team. Burley was most proud of how the girls competed, and this season that translated into more wins than in previous years.
San Benito beat North Salinas twice this season, its first win over the league’s premier team since the 2013 playoffs, en route to earning a share of a league championship for the first time in 13 years. The Balers also had several other quality wins in what will go down as a truly memorable season from Burley’s view.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at email@example.com