By Keith Peters
Dave Winn is not one to look past the next match. That formula worked for his Palo Alto girls' volleyball team last year when the Vikings won the CIF Division I state championship.
Winn, however, admitted on Saturday that his team has been looking ahead to a possible opponent for the NorCal Championships.
"We're not a team to look past the next match," Winn said, "but we're been preparing for St. Francis (Sacramento) since last week. It's been a little tough on the girls watch game tape of two teams."
Winn figured No. 2 St. Francis would be the logical opponent for his No. 1 Vikings in Tuesday's NorCal finals in Paly's gym at 7p.m. Unfortunately for Palo Alto, all the extra preparation has gone for naught.
When the Vikings make history by hosting their first-ever NorCal title, it won't be against the team they defeated in last year's semifinals. Instead, it will be neighborhood rival Menlo-Atherton.
The No. 3-seeded Bears (31-6) will make their first-ever appearance in the NorCal finals after upsetting host St. Francis, 25-19, 25-20, 23-23, on Saturday night. Junior Ali Spindt led M-A with 12 kills and 11 digs while sophomore Pauli King had 10 kills and senior Sarah Collins contributed 21 assists.
"We're excited -- both to play Paly and to play locally," said M-A coach Jen Wilson, whose team had to travel to Sacramento on Saturday. "Palo Alto is a great team and we will do everything we can to prepare for our game Tuesday night. Our goal is to work hard, play our game, and have fun.
"As far as St. Francis -- everything just came together and the girls played the best team volleyball they have all season. We were able to serve tough and get St. Francis out of system in order to set up our defense. The girls adjusted well and were scrappy on defense, giving our hitters a chance to execute. Most importantly, we were able to side out when we needed to and not let the momentum shift too far in St. Francis' direction."
Palo Alto (34-3), meanwhile, set the stage for a second meeting with the Bears in just over a week by eliminating No. 4 San Ramon Valley, 25-20, 25-23, 25-13, Saturday afternoon.
Menlo-Atherton has lost the past three meetings with Palo Alto -- last week's CCS finals (3-0), in the Milpitas Spikefest II (2-0) and in the 2010 section title match (3-0). The Vikings, meanwhile, will be playing for a second straight trip to the state finals for the first time in school history in any sport.
Despite having some continuing problems with its serving, Paly was efficient in winning its 19th straight match -- especially in the third set when the Vikings jumped out to a 13-2 lead behind the solid play of seniors Melanie Wade, Kimmy Whitson, Maddie Kuppe, Caroline Martin and Jackie Koenig plus junior Shelby Knowles and sophomore Becca Raffel.
Wade led the way with 19 kills and Kuppe added 15, coincidentally the same numbers as their jerseys. Whitson had 32 assists.
Winn said his team has been struggling with its serving and that "we need to a better job of taking care of the ball."
Paly had three service errors in the opening set, the final one allowing the Wolves (35-9) to get to within 16-15 before Paly five f the next six points for a 22-16 lead.
Paly trailed in the second set 18-16 before Kuppe came up with a block, Wade produced a kill Kuppe followed with another kill, Koenig served an ace, Wade assisted on a kill by Whitson and Koenig served another ace as Paly grabbed a 22-20 lead. At 24-21, Wade served long to keep SRV alive until a double block by Koenig and Raffel ended it.
Despite a few problems, Winn acknowledged that the win over San Ramon Valley "was a good test. I think we're doing all the right things. But, we have to stay within the system. When we do that, the other team can't can't any momentum."
That will be Palo Alto's plan on Tuesday against M-A as the Vikings seek a trip to Southern California to defend their state title.
In the SoCal semifinals, top-seeded Los Alamitos (37-3) and No. 2 Marymount (32-4) advanced to the finals.
In Division IV NorCal semifinal action Saturday, No. 5 seed Sacred Heart Prep (24-8) saw its season end in a 23-25, 25-20, 25-22, 20-25, 15-6 loss at No. 1 Union Mine (31-5) in El Dorado County.
The Gators were led by seniors Jesse Ebner and Sarah Daschbach with 26 and 15 kills, respectively. Also playing in their final match for SHP was starting libero Olivia Bertolacci and reserve Natalie Friel. The WBAL Foothill Division champion Gators return eight juniors, including Sonia Abuel-Saud -- sidelined the second half of the season with an ACL injury.
In NorCal Division V semifinal play, No. 5 Priory (26-6) wrapped up its fine season in a 25-19, 25-13, 25-22 loss at top-seeded Branson (38-1) in Ross. The Panthers will lose only captain Alyssa Gutman-Green and Angie Perna off a talented squad that won the WBAL Skyline Division.
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