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San Benito High School loses one great athlete while seeing another rise

Sophia Mariottini follows Kaiya Dickens in softball excellence.
Sophia Mariottini. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Sophia Mariottini. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Kaiya Dickens. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Kaiya Dickens. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Editor’s note: This article was updated following San Benito High School’s win over Leigh High School. Last updated June 10 at 9:30 a.m.

As the Balers softball team takes their home field at 4 p.m. on June 10 for their championship game in the 2021 Central Coast Section Girls Softball Championships against Presentation High School, graduating senior Kaiya Dickens, 18,  will be reaching the end of her high school career while sophomore Sophia Mariottini, 16, is just beginning hers. San Benito High School beat Leigh High School 11-1 on June 9.

With a 12-5 overall record, the team ranks second in the Pacific Coast Athletics division and 24th in the state, excelling this season after a pandemic-forced hiatus kept them off the field for almost a year, altogether canceling the 2020 season and truncating the 2021 season. The pre-championship schedule included only 16 games, down from a yearly average of 28 games. 

“Honestly, it was tough at first,” Dickens said. “Everyone was so unsure and unmotivated because of having school online and not being able to see our friends. I thought, “If there are any opportunities, I am going to jump on them. Anything I can do, I am going to do it. So I am super thankful that we ended up getting a season.”

Mariottini started her freshman year in 2020 playing on the junior varsity team. She joined the varsity team, playing outfield, just as the shutdown happened.

“I told myself I wanted to play varsity,” Mariottini said. “I kept working hard, and the coaches started to see my potential. I made the team, but then COVID hit, and we had to stop playing.” 

For Mariottini, whose focus had been on softball since she began playing weekend tournaments with travel ball when she was seven years old, the sudden end to the season was a shock.

“I was really upset,” she said, “But I was more upset for the seniors because I knew it meant a lot to them. It was not a great feeling for any of us.”

When practice resumed on March 7, Mariottini set her sights on a new position on the field. The team’s two pitchers had graduated the year before, leaving a hole that she decided to fill. 

“I knew we had to come back strong this year,” she said, “The two pitchers who left were phenomenal, and the team really counted on me to take their place. Everybody on the team was working their hardest, and I had to do my best right along with them. I did a lot of hard training and a lot of pitching at some pretty rough times.”

As this season’s starting pitcher, she has turned out to be an asset that Baler softball coach Andrew Barragan can rely on this year.

“She has really great stamina,” Barragan said. “You can’t tell from watching whether it is her first inning or her fifth. She is the glue to this team, and I am looking forward to the next two years of having her with us.”

The current team will be coming back almost intact, with only two graduating seniors leaving positions to be filled.

“I think next year we are going to do amazing,” Mariottini said. “I am going to work to get better, and I think the team will improve as well. We are all just going to keep moving up. We are going to lose Kaiya, who is a really big asset, but we will have to adjust, and I think we can do it.”  

Dickens, who will be attending Monterey Peninsula College next year, is indeed a huge loss to the team and, with a lifelong dedication to both sports and academic activities, a loss to San Benito High School as well. She has served as commissioner of clubs at the school and was senior class president. She was a two-season varsity basketball player and would have played in both 2020 and 2021 had COVID restrictions not gotten in the way. But softball is the closest to her heart.

“Sports has always been a huge part of my life,” Dickens said. “I started playing tee-ball and soccer when I was four or five years old, started karate in kindergarten, and started basketball in the fourth grade. I have been involved in class offices and ASB [Associated Student Body]. But softball has been my greatest commitment.”

Being involved in so many activities has been a balancing act, but one she has gotten used to over the years.

“It is definitely a challenge,” she said. “But it is something I have been doing my whole life.  Even playing multiple sports, two or three at one time. It is a big time commitment, but because I enjoy them, it makes them fun and is worth it. I am lucky to have a huge support system with my family and friends—they are my village.  But I love what I do, and staying busy helps me stay on top of all the things I am doing.”

The rush at the last few months of the school year to pull together a team and play at the highest level possible brought unexpected complications. Between losing graduated seniors from the team, some returning players opted for sports other than softball or decided not to play at all.

“Going into this year, I was not sure what to expect,” she said. “We lost our ace pitchers, and with COVID, we had a lot of players coming back. There was only one other returning senior, Aniesa Osorio, and a couple of juniors as well, but most of the team were pretty new to our softball program. It was a really young team, but I had the utmost respect and trust in my teammates, but we all very much wanted to play, particularly because COVID took so much of our time away.”

Dickens’ training and drive to compete helped pull the team together, according to Barragan.

“Kaiya has been a varsity starter for four years,” he said. “But I have coached her, starting in travel ball, since she was eight.  She knows my system and my style. In fact, if I didn’t show up sometime, I think she could pretty much take over for me.  She has really come into her own this year, and she is having by far her best season so far.”

Dickens is quick to share the credit for the team’s success.

“For Aniesa and I, we all tried to play to our best ability and make the most of it because we knew it was our last year,” she said. “Sophie too—she’s been doing a really great job and was named captain this season. I think that will help the team out next year, and she will have a really big role to fill, being our ace pitcher and being an underclassman. I think she is going to be carrying the games, and her leadership is going to be critical next year.”

Dickens has not decided what she will be studying at Monterey Peninsula College, but she is leaning towards a kinesiology major.

“I am hoping to decide by the end of the summer,” she said. “But I am not sold on it yet. I want to keep my options open and see what other majors can offer me. I don’t really know what I don’t know, if that makes sense, and I don’t want to be limited.”

If the Balers win against Leigh on June 9, they will play one more time on June 10 in a game that will determine the division’s championship. But win or lose, Dickens and Mariottini can both look back with pride on this season and look forward to the adventures of a new school year as they go their separate ways in life.

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.