Written by Matthew Hamilton
Often overlooked and sometimes ignored, the athletes that populate the benches of Gunn’s varsity sports teams have a unique experience in high school sports. Working just as hard as the players who start, but not receiving the reward of playing time, benchwarmers find pleasure in the friendships made with their team- mates and individual growth throughout the season. Many could start on teams in other high schools, but find themselves on the bench for Gunn. Despite this fact, most benchwarmers enjoy cheering on their teammates during games and working with them in practice.
For senior Heri Sanchez Vargas, making the varsity boys’ basketball team last year was “probably the best experience of my life.” Trying out as a junior, Vargas was unsure of whether he would make the team that ended up going 20-4 and mak- ing it to the quarterfinals of the Central Coast Section (CCS) Division I tourna- ment. After he made the team, he was able to play in some games but found himself on the bench for most of the season. The basketball team practiced two hours a day for six days a week, and all the time spent with the team was something he enjoyed. When asked, Vargas said the locker room was like the team’s “house.”
Senior Geoffrey Wilson, a benchwarmer on last year’s team, agrees with Vargas. “It is like a brotherhood in there,” he said. “It is where we feel most comfortable.”
Through the two were not playing in the game, both enjoyed supporting their teammates from the bench. “Everyone is just supporting one another,” Wilson said. “We go crazy after Alex Gil or someone else makes a big play,” Vargas added.
Junior Kevin Ji, a member of the varsity boys’ water polo team, had a similar experience. The boys’ water polo team has morning practice three times a week and practice after school every day. The team just captured its third straight Santa Clara Valley Athletic League (SCVAL) champi- onship and has players getting recruited to play in college. “Players that you see as on the bench at Gunn could be really good at other schools,” Ji said.
All of the practice pays off in the pool and in forming friendships with other teammates. “You really get to know your fellow team members and when you have to make specific passes or plays you have to be really confident in working with your fellow teammates,” Ji said. “A false pass or play could get the ball stolen.”
According to Ji, water polo did not have to cut players from tryouts because many left after realizing the amount of work re- quired of players. Ji did not leave, and felt like his growth over the season made his experience worth it. “You show improvement throughout the season,” Ji said.
“I might not be improving as fast as others on the team with more talent, but I am making better passes and not getting tuned as much by defenders from other schools.”
The work put in this season was worth it for Ji, especially knowing it helped his teammates. “Waking up early is something everyone knows is hard to do, but you have to wake up early to get better,” Ji said. “We do a lot of hard sets together so we have to keep each other motivated.”
Senior Ulyssa Valdivia, a member of the varsity girls’ tennis team who placed third in CCS this year, has also enjoyed her time on the team. Through being on the team she has met new people and interacted more with people she sees every day. According to Valdivia, girls she would normally never talk to become close friends though practicing and playing together on the tennis team. As a senior she has been able to make friends with underclassmen on the team.
Valdivia enjoyed watching her teammates’ matches and motivating them. “It is really fun to watch your teammates go through a really hard match and win,” she said. “It was really fun to cheer on someone who is in so much pain that they want to give up and to motivate them to do their best.”
Practicing with her teammates was a source of motivation for Valdivia. Her teammates pushed her to do better at every practice. “You try to become better,” Valdivia said. “When you are surrounded by good players you are motivated to do your best and it is fun to get that experi- ence.”
Valdivia, Ji, Vargas and Wilson all note that despite the time commitment and the lack of playing time, their experiences on the team were something they cherish. Even though they might get more playing time at another high school, they all preferred the team atmospheres at Gunn. The family dynamics and friendships formed during long practices made all the time worth it. “It does not matter what you play—everybody is friends with everybody and they do not judge based on your spot on the lineup,” Valdivia said.