With a potential match against defending Central Coast Section champ Menlo-Atherton on the horizon, Palo Alto head coach Dave Winn started doing his research on the Bears two weeks before Wednesday night's match -- even though the Vikings and Bears were not a guaranteed matchup.
The extra homework paid off in a big way as the fifth-seeded Vikings got a career night from junior outside hitter Jade Schoenberger in a 19-25, 25-22, 25-20, 20-25, 15-9 victory over the top-seeded Bears in a CCS Division I girls' volleyball semifinal.
"Everybody on our team had to do what they could," Winn said of the upset win. "Nobody had to be heroic. I am really proud of all of them."
Schoenberger finished with a career-high 24 kills and senior outside hitter Becca Raffel poured in 21 kills of her own, as the Vikings (24-9) advanced to the championship game against SCVAL De Anza Division rival Homestead on Saturday at Independence High in San Jose at 7 p.m.
"Phenomenal match," Winn said of Schoenberger's performance. "She's really come a long way from the beginning of this season; she was unsure of her hitting early on. Tonight she was poised, and had a lot of variety in her shots."
Senior middle blocker Lauren Kerr (11 kills) and senior libero Keri Gee (29 digs) also were big contributors to the Vikings' winning cause.
For Menlo-Atherton head coach Ron Whitmill and his girls, the loss certainly stung, as the Bears (21-10) had made the CCS Division I finals each of the past four seasons.
"That was a good match, they were just the better team today," Whitmill said of Paly. "We didn't execute our game plan the way we wanted to. And to (Paly's) credit, their players stepped up and played big."
Bears' senior outside hitter Paulina King ended her career with a team-high 19 kills, while junior outside hitter/setter Devin Joos did a little of everything for M-A with 29 digs, 18 kills and three aces. Freshman Kirby Knapp added 48 assists, sophomore Leanna Collins had 16 kills and senior Virginia Lane finished with 20 digs.
Menlo-Atherton looked good at the outset of the game, jumping out to a quick 1-0 overall advantage behind a strong 7-1 closing run.
The Bears' momentum continued into the second game, as Menlo-Atherton took a 20-16 lead into the closing stages of Game 2.
But that's when Schoenberger began to take over for the Vikings. The junior, averaging seven kills per game on the season, exploded for seven kills in the last eight Paly points of the game, helping the Vikings tie the match.
"Every player has their moment in the game," Schoenberger said. "For me, I guess that was mine."
After Schoenberger's phenomenal second game, Raffel took over in the third game for the Vikings. The senior provided seven kills, one ace and one key block, as Paly took the game 25-20, and held a 2-1 overall advantage.
Menlo-Atherton would not go away quietly however, as the Bears fought back from an early game disadvantage to win game four 25-20.
The pivotal fifth match opened with a powerful kill in the middle from Kerr, electrifying the Palo Alto fans in attendance, and giving the Vikings some early momentum in the shortened game.
"You never like to have to play game fives," Whitmill said. "Momentum goes away in the beginning just a little bit, and it's really hard to turn things around."
Paly ended up leading for the duration of the fifth set, which ended on Raffel's final kill of the evening.
With the win, Paly moves to the finals of the CCS for the first time since 2011, when the Vikings were state champions.
Although Winn acknowledged that his current squad might not have quite as much talent as the 2011 team that featured five future Division I players, he believed his girls are playing to their potential.
"When you have to play the gauntlet of the De Anza league, make it through there, and then beat a team as quality as M-A, that's a state championship for this year's team," Winn said.
The Vikings will face off against No. 2 Homestead (25-7) with the knowledge that the Mustangs already have two wins against them this season. Both teams, however, already have qualified for the CIF NorCal playoffs.
Menlo School staved off a familiar foe in a 3-1 victory over league opponent Harker in a semifinal match at Notre Dame-Belmont on Wednesday.
The Knights, ranked No. 20 in CalHi's state rankings, improved to 28-5 with a 25-21, 23-25, 25-14, 25-22 win. The No. 1-seeded Knights face No. 3 Soquel (21-6) in the title match Saturday at Independence High at 12:30 p.m. It's Menlo's first appearance in the finals since 2008.
With the win, Menlo also heads to the CIF NorCal playofs, which begin Tuesday.
"We played well enough tonight to move into the CCS finals and to play in the NorCal tournament," Menlo coach Steve Cavella said. "It's a great accomplishment for the team. I'm really proud of everyone."
The Knights defeated the Eagles twice during the West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) season.
"I thought Harker played really well tonight," Cavella said. "They really played a great match."
Menlo fell behind 21-16 in the fourth set before charging back to put away the match.
"It would have been really easy for the team to just give up and start getting ready for a fifth game," Cavella said. "However, much to their credit they really battled and outscored Harker 9-1 to end the match."
Seniors Maddie Huber (eight kills, 13 digs), Maddy Frappier and Melissa Cairo (24 digs) led the Menlo defense. Elisa Merten "did a geat job running the offense" with 44 assists and 15 digs while Morgan Dressel and Lida Vandermeer (16 kills, four blocks) "had some really key blocks."
The Knights got a big contribution from Maddie Stewart, who came in during the third game and had nine kills in Games 3 and 4.
"She was a real difference maker," Cavella said. "She had a key block coming out of a Harker timeout at the end of the fourth game. I don't think we would have won tonight without her stellar performance."
Priory failed to win a single match during the WBAL Foothill Division season, but the Panthers nonetheless will have an opportunity to play for a CCS after they defeated No. 3 Pinewood, 25-13, 25-14, 23-25, 25-18, on Wednesday at St. Thomas More in San Jose.
Second-seeded Priory (15-12) will defend its section title on Saturday at Independence High (10:30 a.m.) against No. 4 Crystal Springs (15-15), which won a five-set semifinal match from No. 1 seed Mt. Madonna.
The Panthers advanced behind the effort of senior Marine Hall-Poirier, who finished with 23 kills and 28 digs. Jane Ross had 14 kills and 14 digs, Michaela Koval added 15 digs and setter Riley Gallivan had 42 assists. Anna Brett came up big at the net with five blocks.