Balers junior Coley Corrigan is having an MVP-type season, having scored nine goals in a game twice this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Since Rachel Smithee graduated from San Benito High in 2015, the girls water polo team has endured one of its toughest stretches in program history. The Haybalers couldn’t even field a team for the 2016 and 2017 seasons because of a lack of numbers, which is stunning considering San Benito has one of the largest enrollments in the Central Coast Section.

And just when it looked like things were turning around in 2019—the Haybalers finished with a winning record in league play—Covid-19 forced the cancellation of the 2020 season. Enter Smithee, an on-campus teacher who took over the position this last off-season and has San Benito on the cusp of winning a Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division championship. 

The Balers entered the week with a 5-0 mark in division action, highlighted by a 15-14, overtime victory over Santa Catalina School on Oct. 6. 

“That was definitely a nail-biter, and I was really happy with how the girls kept calm under pressure because most of the games we’ve been up by quite a bit,” she said. “So it was just unusual for us to be in that situation, and I’m happy with how the girls responded.”

San Benito followed that contest with an impressive 14-9 victory over a decent Christopher High squad. Against Santa Catalina, goals by Coley Corrigan and Allison Presta in overtime proved to be the difference. The team’s leading scorer, Corrigan has had some monster games this season. She has tallied nine goals in a match twice this season—both coming against Santa Catalina. 

The junior hole-set also had a seven-goal game against Branham and found the cage six times against Pacific Grove. She has great chemistry with her twin, Maddie, who delivers passes where only Coley can get it amid a swarm of defenders. 

“They’ve been playing forever together, so they have a really good connection,” Smithee said. “They’re also both well-conditioned, fast swimmers and can counter attack quickly and get back on defense. Coley is also a strong team leader and communicates what she needs from them.”

Smithee added Maddie Corrigan is the team’s best defensive player in the field, as evidenced by her 11 steals against Santa Catalina. She ranks second or third on the team in goals scored, and also prevented a Santa Catalina goal by blocking a shot just in front of the cage. Goalie Megan Ricker has been outstanding all season and made 23 saves.

“Megan has been incredible in the cage and also has the most insane work ethic,” Smithee said. “She’s always asking for harder workouts and is constantly looking to improve. She’s never satisfied with her performance and has a great competitive drive.”

Senior Caroline Fleming has also made a sizable impact with her ability to score goals. Tall, physical and strong, Fleming has the proper mental mindset to excel in water polo. 

“She can handle the aggressiveness of the sport very well,” Smithee said. “Sometimes the game can be a bit overwhelming because a lot can happen under the water that the refs don’t see, and she’s very good at handling that. She’s also good on defense and on offense going down and calling to get open.”

Presta has been rock-solid defensively, but also has shown the capability to score goals and be an offensive threat. Fellow juniors Aiyana Duran and Hailee Talavera have also made an impact, the former for her defense and the latter for her offense. Talavera scored her first varsity goal at the beginning of the season and has improved steadily ever since. 

“Hailee in a short time has become one of our top scorers, which is pretty impressive,” Smithee said. “She’s a small girl, too, so you wouldn’t expect it at first. But she hustles down the pool and works very hard.”

Before the season started, Smithee didn’t know what to expect because the team didn’t play in the recent Covid spring season. However, Smithee knew she had a couple of club players on the roster and fast swimmers, giving her optimism. 

“I had a feeling we’d be pretty strong in our league and the expectations were high, but I didn’t necessarily know if we’d be ranked No. 1 in our league,” she said. 

How exciting and intense was the Santa Catalina game? Smithee said a couple of the reserve players and her assistant coach lost their voices because they were screaming so much throughout. Just a few years removed from not being able to field a team, San Benito hopes this turnaround season will be a harbinger for overall success and stability.

Maddie Corrigan has been a force both offensively and defensively this season. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Allison Presta has been a key contributor to the San Benito High girls water polo team. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Caroline Fleming is part of a resurgent San Benito High girls water polo program. 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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