San Benito High lacrosse coach Chris Branon acknowledged the team might go the entire season without earning a victory. At 0-9 entering their April 20 Pacific Coast League match against Aptos High, conventional wisdom would have it that there have been few things to highlight this season.
That would be incorrect, according to Branon.
“I can’t say in any of the games I’ve been disappointed in any of our players or a game,” he said. “They’re getting better. It’s hard to talk about because you want more, but at the end of the night I can walk away from the field with my head shaking up and down saying yes, they’re getting it.”
Covid-19 affected high school sports universally, with some programs able to rebound better than others. Branon said Covid had a particularly negative effect not only on the San Benito program but its feeder program, the Hollister H.A.W.G.S., which was forced to shut down for an extended period of time.
In 2020, the Balers were limited to five matches. Last season, they got to play seven games. But they also graduated 20 seniors, a huge number. Combine that with the inability to help players develop and it’s resulted in a tough 2022 season from a win-loss perspective.
“We got depleted a little bit with graduation and in trying to recruit players because of Covid,” Branon said. “So this year was really about growing the program, and we’re doing it. We haven’t won a game yet, and I’m not sure we will. But to me, winning and losing is not the goal for this year—growth is the goal. It’s about becoming better players and developing a high lacrosse IQ.”
Branon and his coaching staff intend to do that by hammering in their players the fundamentals of the game.
“Fundamentals are key because during the two Covid years we were not able to teach them, so a lot of guys came in brand new to the game,” he said.
Branon said the team’s top players include junior goalie Kohen Nelson, sophomore midfielder Jake Varnes, junior defender Justin Corea and junior attacker Carson Brown. Brown, Nelson and Varnes are tri-captains, and Nelson has developed into a force even though on the surface it doesn’t show since the team is being outscored by a hefty rate.
“We don’t have that one great middie or attack yet, but we probably have one of the best goalies in the league,” Branon said. “It’s absolutely amazing what Kohen can do. He’s being looked at from around the league. He brings what I want every player to be and players look up to him. He understands the game, moves side to side quickly and is standing on his head. What an athlete.”
Varnes is one of the few players who entered the program with lacrosse experience. That’s because he played for the H.A.W.G.S. starting when he was 11 or 12. The ideal scenario would have the club program producing a dozen players like Varnes over the next couple of years.
“Jake came in knowing lacrosse and having that game IQ,” Branon said. “He came in knowing what to do with the stick and has helped mold the group of middies.”
Brown has done likewise with the attackers and is one of the team’s leading goal scorers. Possessing excellent hand-eye coordination, size and strength, Brown has added a lot to the team. What can Brown do for you? For the Balers, a lot.
“Carson is aggressive and his willingness to go inside is what you need to have to play the attack position,” Branon said. “He’s learned how to play the game, make shots and he’s not done learning.”
Branon said Corea has built up the defense corps and utilizes athleticism, quickness, speed and knowledge of the game to be a difference-maker. Speaking of playmakers, the Balers lost a good one in Noah Hoffpauir-Tymitz, who has been sidelined with a broken collarbone.
“Noah would have potentially been one of the league’s leading scorers,” Branon said.
Hoffpauir-Tymitz, Isaiah Anaya, Elias Escamilla and Eduardo Quezada are the only seniors on the team. In addition to improving in the fundamentals, Branon also wanted the team to develop its transitions from defense to offense.
“We’re getting there and it starts with the goalie who has been great for us,” Branon said.
Branon has been particularly excited that four girls—Layla Borges, Mia Alnas, Andrea George and Vicki Hernandez—have joined the program on the junior varsity team. Borges made history by becoming the first girl on either the JV or varsity team to score a goal, Branon said.
Even though the program has previously had a girl or two play, this is the biggest group of girls to make one of the teams for a single season.
“I tell the girls they’re all pioneers in the program because at some point in time girls lacrosse will come to this high school,” Branon said. “I know we’re not ready for it yet, but the school is in need of a girls lacrosse program. I would love to see it. If you look around the league, a lot of girls programs are out there. And we have 3,200 students. Why not?”
Branon knows Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are championship lacrosse teams. The team will be better equipped to stay competitive in the upper Gabilan Division next season, if it stays there. San Benito could get dropped to the Mission for 2023, but that will be determined at the year-end league meetings.
However, the Balers are returning virtually their entire team and are expected to have some impact newcomers from the JV squad.
“Next year we should have an exciting year on a different level,” Branon said. “This year has been an exciting growth period, and next year we’ll be in a situation where we’re trying to figure out how to get that ‘W.’ But I’m pleased because we’re going in the right direction. At some point when that banner is lifted when we win league, the seniors on this team will be a part of that, whether it’s next year or 10 years from now.”
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]