In the last couple of years, San Benito High softball coach Andrew Barragan has purposely scheduled ultra-tough non-league competition to put the Haybalers in the best position to win a league and section championship.
Sometimes the players react well to it, and sometimes—as was the case this year—the inevitable losses that come with playing top-ranked teams have a way of frustrating them. In the midst of a little adversity, Barragan and his assistant coaches had to remind the players they had to be patient and the defeats would serve a very useful purpose.
It’s hard to argue with what Barragan said as San Benito absolutely crushed a solid Salinas team in a Pacific Coast League Gabilan Division opener, 11-0, in a mercy-rule game on March 24.
San Benito followed that impressive result with another mercy-rule win, a 14-0 pasting of Christopher on March 29. The Balers entered the Salinas contest on a three-game losing streak, coming at the hands of national power St. Francis and perennially solid teams in Aragon of San Mateo and Central of Fresno.
Their other loss came in the season-opener to a loaded Mitty team that entered the week 10-0.
“Any time you have a little losing streak, you’re going to get challenges within the team in any sport,” Barragan said. “You look at our strength of schedule on MaxPreps and we have the toughest strength of schedule in CCS and state. But it’s hard to get that through the girls to not worry and not get frustrated. It’s hard for them to buy into that. There’s a little disconnect and I think in the Salinas game they finally understood why I put together that schedule.
“It’s because they’re not going to see anyone in league they haven’t already seen from the teams we played in non-league. Now, did I expect us to boat race Salinas, 11-0? Absolutely not. I mean, the bats just came alive. I told them after the game welcome back, this is the team I’ve been waiting for to show up. A 15 hit barrage and striking out just two times against good pitching and big, solid Salinas girls is impressive. We came out and punched them right in the mouth from the get-go.”
San Benito is more talented than the team that won the program’s 11th CCS championship last June. Not only did the Balers return the majority of the starters including ace Sophia Mariottini, Giana Perez, Seryna Esparza, Madeline Bermudez and Dominique Oliveira, they added talented newcomers in Mia Philips and Grace Peffley.
Philips is a converted shortstop who transferred in last year after attending Evergreen Valley and Silver Creek. Philips’ travel ball coach called Barragan and told him that he had inherited “one of the best defensive second baseman in the state.”
“I’m like, ‘Come on, if she’s the best second baseman why isn’t she playing shortstop?’” Barragan said. “So where do I have her now? At short. Her coach wasn’t lying. I’ve never seen a glove like Mia’s. She can pick it. And she is by far the speedster on the team, just lightning quick.”
And a force offensively as well. Philips, who is hitting .321 on the season, went 3 for 4 with a double in the Salinas game, part of a 15-hit attack. Esparza, a senior third baseman, has been the team’s best hitter thus far and went 3 for 4, upping her average to .367.
Barragan expects Esparza to be a late-season commit to a four-year program because he’s receiving a fair amount of calls and emails from college coaches. Perez, a Sonoma State-signee, also had three hits against Salinas and two RBI.
Nicknamed The Chief, Perez plays first base and has a team-high three home runs. Bermudez, the sophomore left fielder, is often a harbinger to the team’s success as the team’s leadoff hitter. She’s hitting .333 with an on-base percentage of .400 and recently earned a huge honor by being chosen to represent Team Mexico’s 16U team in the Triple Crown International Challenge Tournament in June 2024 in Denver.
“Maddie is the one who sets the tone for us as far as her getting on base,” Barragan said. “With her IQ on the basepaths, she is going to make things happen. If she doesn’t get on base, it’s obviously a lot tougher for us to manufacture anything.”
Of course, Mariottini is the one who holds everything together as the team’s ace. The junior right-hander is remarkably consistent and rarely has bad outings.
“Sophia is 5-4 but her ERA is still 2.30,” Barragan said. “She will keep us in every game and put us in a position where we can win. Right now she’s dialed in and looking to make a statement in league.”
Oliveira is one of the best defensive catchers in the league and her bat is catching up to her top-notch defense. Peffley has been a dynamic player as she is hitting .353 and playing a strong center field.
“Her softball IQ is very high and she gets to the ball, reads it well and is a lefty slapper who can also power slap,” Barragan said. “She’s a switch hitter with a diverse skill set.”
Barragan expects the team to duke it out with Notre Dame-Salians—which reached the CCS Open Division title game last year against St. Francis—for the Gabilan Division championship.
“I think Notre Dame and Hollister, that is what we’re looking at,” he said. “Notre Dame and us, I don’t think we’ll have too many issues with Gilroy and Watsonville (even though they’re very good teams). We’re not looking past anybody, but we’ve got those two Notre Dame games circled on our calendar.”
Barragan hopes the team continues to play like it did in the Salinas game, which was called after five innings
“Did I expect that? No. Was I surprised by it? No, because I know what this team can do,” Barragan said. “We were just waiting for this team to finally erupt like a volcano.”
The Christopher game showcased the Balers’ depth. Jess Casillas had a career-high three hits and four RBI, Angelic Diaz had three RBI and freshman Kylen Mingus started and pitched four shutout innings.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]