Tennis: Seniors give Balers an advantage

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San Benito's Kelsey Slavich hits the ball during practice a year ago.

Behind a team of juniors and no seniors, the San Benito girls tennis team surprised the Tri-County Athletic League and finished in second place last fall. A year later, in the Gabilan Division of the new Monterey Bay League, expectations are sky high for the Balers.

“We have four solid seniors,” head coach Ed Cecena said. “We haven’t had that many seniors in a long time. All of them have been in the program for at least three years. They are all experienced and we expect to be strong.”

The team’s strength will be behind a solid, senior-filled singles group led by returning captains Audrey Marshall and Alex Triolo, the two oldest players on the team for the second year in a row. With the captain experience – plus entering their fourth year on the team – the pair is expected to help grow a doubles group that is still in flux.

“We’ve suffered some changes in the rankings,” Triolo said. “Some girls have left us and other girls have gotten injured. Our singles should be really strong. And our doubles, if they put their mind to it, they can succeed just as much.”

With so many seniors, the team is full of players who have been there before, she said.

“This year, we’re very old,” Triolo said. “The majority of the varsity team is all seniors. I’m glad because not only will that give us the experiences needed, but we have a crop of freshmen and sophomores that we’ve worked with all summer and all practice. We are grooming the next group, you know.”

So far, throughout the summer and the first week of practice, the seniors have done their jobs.

“They are leading by example,” Cecena said. “They help out with their play. They are very good leaders. I think they are a good group led by Ally and Audrey.”

But it’s still a learning experience for the pair.

“Last year, it was my first time so I wasn’t sure what it meant or how to carry this team,” Triolo said. “Now this year, when the girls voted myself and Audrey to be captains, I’ve learned what that means and how to me more mentally tough within my matches.”

For Marshall, it’s an opportunity to build the younger players’ skills.

“Last year, we didn’t know how to do it,” she said. “We were young. We were the youngest team captains that we had. Now we are seniors and we are grooming the team. It’s going to be a different dynamic.”

She continued: “I think we’re a lot better. We worked over the summer with our coaches, improving and helping to get our team up to the next level.”

And there is even competition among the two leaders. For now, Marshall is entrenched as the No. 1 singles players, but Triolo, who started last year as the team’s No. 1, isn’t far behind.

“I wouldn’t be surprise if they switch off that No. 1 spot all year,” Cecena said. “I wouldn’t be surprised. They both can play there. It’s a good competition.”

Neither girl expects to relent, though, as the season continues. Both enter with dreams of a league championship and a deep run into the Central Coast Section playoffs.

“I want to take league as a team,” Marshall said bluntly. “For myself, I want to take it as far as I can in the CCS. Last year, I made it past the first round in TCALs. This year, I hope to make it to the next round and into CCS and support the Balers and represent our team.”

Of course, they will do it in a different league this year with different opponents. That change, though, doesn’t faze the squad.

“I think it will be better because we have more opportunity to win it,” Triolo said. “Last year, we weren’t challenged as much in our division. We played some lower level schools. Now, we are playing Aptos and Carmel – that’s only going to benefit us in the end. I’m looking forward to a great season.”

With the new opponents, a league championship is still in the team’s cards, Marshal said.

“Like last year, we are skilled and it doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are skilled you are going to be awesome no matter what,” she said. “I think we can take first. It’s definitely in our reach. I like what I see at practice. We have a lot of great girls and great prospects for the years to come. The No. 1 spot in league is in our reach.”

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