Cougars sophomore Brooke Sabala gets past a San Benito player in the teams' game on April 30. Photo by Bryant Hammer.
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For many high school sports teams at this time, having fun and enjoying the experience of playing a season supersedes wins and losses—especially given what’s happened in the last year dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Christopher and San Benito’s girls basketball teams—while still wanting to win each time they take the court—also realize they’re simply fortunate to be on the hardwood competing in meaningful games. 

“I didn’t have any goals for the team (at the start) because I didn’t even know we were going to be able to do this,” Haybalers coach Mitch Burley said. “We’ve only been out here for three weeks, and I just want the girls to gain a season of experience and have fun doing it.”

Because of circumstances that prevent student-athletes in the Gilroy Unified School District from playing two sports in the same season, Cougars coach Heather Stewart encouraged some of the team’s top would-be returners to play other sports since basketball was one of the last sports to receive the go-ahead to play this season. 

A big part of coaching is developing the players you have, so in that regard Stewart feels great about being able to make an impact in helping her players grow, not just on the court but off it as well. 

“There are a lot of really good lessons to learn, especially for the younger players who can grow up fast,” she said. “This year is all about development and learning and growing. Maybe it’s tough for our seniors in terms of the dropoff from the successes we had last year, but I’m really proud of their patience and working with young players and teaching them up.”

In a physical, scrappy contest, San Benito defeated Christopher 58-48 on April 30. It was just the second game of the season for both squads, and they face off again on Friday. Freshman sensation Bailey Cotter erupted for 29 points in leading San Benito to victory. Scoring on a variety of up-and-under moves and hesitation, dribble drives to the basket, Cotter was the clear difference-maker as she was saddled with foul trouble early and had to spend a good chunk of the second quarter on the bench.

The Cougars led 31-25 at halftime before the Balers outscored them 24-8 in the third to take command. 

“We stagnated a bit in the second without Bailey, and then in the third she kind of went off and they started slowing down,” Burley said. 

Nat Javier and Mia Ledesma Old-Elk led Christopher with 16 points each, and Mikaela Santiago finished with seven points. Old-Elk, a senior post, also had several blocked shots and rebounds. Javier is just a freshman and the younger sister of former CHS standout Kat Javier. 

Santiago provides the team with stability when the ball is in her hands. Old-Elk and Santiago definitely bring intensity and a seriousness to the court that rubs off on their teammates. 

“They bring a certain fire and focus which they’re teaching to the new girls coming into the program,” Stewart said. 

Stewart describes Brooke Sabala as my “feisty, defensive gnat,” a compliment to Sabala’s tough play and passing prowess. Javier and fellow freshman Alyssa Lopez are strong defensively, while Emily Baumgartner and Bella Suarez are impact players, too. Stewart is also excited about freshman post Adanna Ihenacho, who is raw but has plenty of potential.

“She has a lot of growth to do, but she will do a good job,” Stewart said. “I really like this group of players. We saw a lot of growth from the first game to the second, and we plan on continuing to see additional growth with the remaining games that we have.”

Burley wouldn’t mind seeing his players develop to the point where they could also make the Central Coast Section playoffs. He admitted the team at times didn’t know what it was doing defensively against Christopher because they have yet to be at full strength for any practices.

“But the girls settled in a little bit and did some nice things,” Burley said. “It’s been hard at practice (not having the full complement of players), but another week of practice will help and girls will start returning.”

Sophomore guard Emmia Rivera had 13 points and displayed a nice mid-range jumper, while freshman post Annie Fleming scored four consecutive points to start the game-winning charge in the third quarter. Fleming had two older sisters who played at San Benito and an older brother, Joe, who played football at Christopher. 

The Balers return just one player off last year’s team in guard/forward Ema Alfaro, who provides toughness and stability with her play on both ends of the floor. 

As the season progresses, Burley said he expects to receive contributions from senior Angelina Marquez, sophomores Gracie Skow and Elena Nino, and freshmen Abby Walter and Tatiana Marquez. 

Similar to Kaiya Dickens—who is playing on the softball team but was a freshman standout three years ago—Cotter has burst onto the scene to make an impact. She scored 21 points in a season-opening win over Pacific Grove. Able to handle the ball in traffic, Cotter’s individual development will be key for the team going forward. “She’s played a lot and you can tell,” Burley said.

Stewart is particularly proud of Baumgartner, who has overcome adversity to get back on the court.

“She’s going to get physically and mentally stronger, and she’ll do a great job as well,” Stewart said.

Senior center Mia Ledesma Old-Elk had 16 points in the Cougars’ 58-48 loss to San Benito. Photo by Bryant Hammer.
Mikaela Santiago is adept at handling the rock for Christopher High. Photo by Bryant Hammer.
Christopher’s Emily Baumgartner looks to make a play in a April 30 game against San Benito. Photo by Bryant Hammer.
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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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