Homegrown talent keys Gavilan women

Former Christopher standout Makenzie Barnes is making an impact at Gavilan. Photo by Robert Eliason.

There’s an old saying that says “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but when it comes to the Gavilan College women’s basketball team, it’s more like familiarity leads to success. Take Rams coach Erik Nelson. Before his successful playing days at Bethany University, he played two years at Gavilan, so he knows the program well. Familiarity stretches even deeper when it comes to his players. 

Four of them played locally for San Benito High in Hollister before coming up to Gavilan, a massive advantage for the team, he said. Three other players—Makenzie Barnes, Jillian Foster and Julia Rodriguez—prepped at Christopher High. Nelson has made it a point to recruit locally and has a roster that proves it. 

“We love the players from San Benito because they work super hard and they get after it,” Nelson said after the team’s 65-54 win over De Anza on Jan. 18, which improved Gavilan’s record to 5-10 overall and 2-1 in the Coast Conference South Division. “When you combine having a great attitude and a great work ethic, I think that’s every coach’s dream.” 

One of those former San Benito standouts, Jessica Curto, graduated in 2017 and is in her second year in the Rams’ program. Curto is on pace to eclipse the season she had last year and is one of the team’s top contributors. And while she keeps improving, notching another stellar performance against De Anza, Curto isn’t letting success get to her head. She knows the hard work needs to continue, and what each player needs to do to maintain the team’s momentum. 

“For this season we’re really focusing on this concept of ‘We Over Me,’ and (we) collectively know if it’s not my night it’s gonna be someone else’s night,” Curto said. “So we really work as a team and to play unselfish basketball.”

That might come a little easier for a team that knows each other so well. Curto is joined on the team by three other former San Benito teammates, including McKinzie Lothrop, Cecilia Vasquez, and Berenice Martinez Santoyo. Familiar faces and a familiarity of playing styles can make for a far more efficient—and successful—playing machine. 

Even the newcomers feel that familiarity, instantly feeling part of the team and ready to contribute.

“I am originally from the Central Valley,” said freshman guard Mireya Hernandez, “so coming here I didn’t know very many girls. But when I got here they opened their arms up and welcomed me onto the team and to Gilroy.” 

That welcoming attitude is one of the key tenets instilled in the team by Nelson who says teamwork and camaraderie are absolutely key to Gavilan’s success. His influence from the sideline was on clear display during the De Anza contest. He started the game, as he typically does, with blazer on and shirt pressed nicely. But it didn’t take long for Nelson to lose the jacket and roll up his sleeves, working the sideline like a prowling tiger, shouting, cajoling, teaching, directing—and coaching. His passion was clear, and clearly appreciated by his players. 

“Nelson is the best, he is very encouraging,” said Curto, who counts Nelson and former WNBA player Danielle Viglione as two major influences in her life. “He doesn’t really raise his voice, but when he does you know something went wrong. He cares very much about our players and the level he cares about us is something I’ve really never had from a coach.” 

Despite a rough start to the season, the Rams are looking to bounce back. Nelson has a list of priorities for the team. He said the players’ focus on full-court defense, ball-sharing and playing as a team will hopefully propel them to a top-three conference finish. But in many ways, Nelson is already pleased with his team’s performance and what it has accomplished.

“More than anything, it’s just trying to empower these girls and make them the best they can be, both on and off the court,” he said. “And to value them as student-athletes, and not just for what they do on the basketball court but also preparing for any obstacles that they’ll encounter later in life and teach them life through basketball. And hopefully down the line they look back on that.”  

And look back on each other as teammates and friends because as the coach and players will tell you, the familiarity that starts at Gavilan is vital to the team’s success, and it certainly doesn’t end there.

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