By Keith Peters
When Palo Alto senior volleyball player Maddie Kuppe walked out of her house on Tuesday night and headed back to school for the NorCal championship match, her mom left her with a parting comment.
"My mom said that I was walking out the door to drive here, 'Enjoy your last match in the Paly gym,'" Kuppe said. "And it caught me so off guard. But, I think tonight as I'm getting ready for bed it will hit me and I'll realize."
Kuppe and her teammates instead were focused on the task at hand, beating No. 3 seed Menlo-Atherton to earn a second straight trip to the CIF Division I state championship match. That was something very real.
But the final match of her high school career at home? It's the kind of thing that can give a senior athlete chills. It's so final. That last match. Then it's over.
While Tuesday did mark the seniors' final home match, there's still one more to be played. That will be contested at Concordia University in Irvine on Saturday night at 7 p.m., when the Vikings (35-3) defend their state title against No. 2 SoCal seed Marymount of Los Angeles.
Marymount (33-4) eliminated top-seeded Los Alamitos in the SoCal title match Tuesday, 21-25, 25-20, 25-20, 25-21. Marymount is ranked No. 20 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 National Volleyball Rankings this week while Paly is No. 16. Los Alamitos was No. 14.
Palo Alto will take a 20-match winning streak into the state finals after the Vikings swept visiting Menlo-Atherton, 25-17, 25-7, 25-15, in the NorCal finals Tuesday.
Menlo-Atherton finished 31-7, setting a school record for single-season victories. Junior Katelyn Doherty had 11 kills and 18 digs while senior Sarah Collins added 18 assists and 13 digs. Standout junior Ali Spindt missed the match due to a virus, forcing coach Jen Wilson to make some last-minute rotation changes.
"Without her (Spindt), it wasn't the same fight," said Paly coach Dave Winn, whose team beat the Bears for a third time this season. "(But) Our team played great tonight. It was like taking an exam, and they aced it."
Kuppe had 14 kills and 13 digs while fellow senior Melanie Wade finished with 17 kills and five blocks, using her 6-foot-5 height to good advantage at the net. Senior setter Kimmy Whitson dished 36 assists and added four blocks while senior Jackie Koenig had eight digs and three aces. Senior Caroline Martin, junior Shelby Knowles and sophomore Becca Raffel also played significant roles in the clinching victory.
"It was one of our better matches," said Whitson. "It helped that we played so consistently."
Perhaps playing at home had a little to do with it. The Vikings have lost only twice at home in two years, once each season, and have gone 76-4 during that time. Paly's lone loss this season was on Sept. 26 to defending Division II state champ St. Francis.
"This was a great opportunity to have in our last match at home," said Kuppe, "Being able to have all our fans here was great."
Paly won its first-ever NorCal last season in Stockton. While that outcome was never a given, the Vikings expected to win this time around.
"Because we did so well last year, we expected to do as well this year," Kuppe said.
And the Vikings have.
Paly streaked to a 13-4 lead in the first set before the Bears rallied behind sophomore Pauli King and Doherty to get to within 18-17. The Vikings' senior leadership took over with Wade getting three straight kills, Kuppe adding a kill, Wade getting another kill and Whitson dropping in a dink to wrap up the set.
In the second set, Paly used a 10-1 run to grab a 17-3 advantage as Kuppe took over in the back row and at the net. Martin also stood out.
In the final set, the Bears got to within 8-6 before Wade took over again and helped push the lead to 18-9. M-A made another brief run to get to within 20-14, but Paly got points from Kuppe, Martin and Koenig. When the Bears returned long, the Vikings had themselves another NorCal trophy.
"As long as the girls feel proud of their effort on the court, they have nothing to be sad about," said M-A coach Jen Wilson, whose team advanced further in NorCals this season than ever before. "This is just a blip on the radar; our season was a great success."
The tough setback to Paly was M-A's fourth straight without winning a set. The Vikings came prepared and it paid off at a most opportune time.
"It couldn't have been a better way to go out," Wade said. "It was a huge crowd and it was really loud in here, and we came out and played how we want to. So, it was a great last home match."
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