Harker is the defending NorCal Division IV champion. Castilleja was a NorCal Division V finalist in 2007 and Menlo reached the NorCal Division IV semifinals last season.
Throw in CCS Division V semifinalist Sacred Heart Prep and CCS Division IV quarterfinalist Mercy-Burlingame and, well, the new league is just plain tough.
"We're playing a brutally hard schedule this year," said Menlo coach Chris Crader, "and the league certainly is part of that. The WBAL will be tough for sure."
There are six teams in the WBAL Foothill Division and everyone plays each other twice. By the time the CCS playoffs roll around, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief — but only for a moment because Castilleja and Sacred Heart Prep could battle in Division V while Menlo and Harker face off again in Division IV.
The WBAL is not alone is providing tough competition this season, however. The SCVAL De Anza Division is equally tough with Palo Alto, Gunn, Mountain View, Los Gatos and Homestead all figuring to battle for league honors.
Homestead is the defending CCS Division I champ while Paly, Gunn, Los Gatos and Mountain View all reached the Division II quarterfinals before losing in '07.
While Menlo's departure from the PAL Bay Division left a void, the league had four CCS teams a year ago and Menlo-Atherton should join the fray this postseason. Woodside looks to be the favorite, but the young Bears are right there.
League action is just getting under way, and Menlo School (1-0, 16-5) has quickly moved to the league in the WBAL following a 25-17, 25-13, 25-11 victory over visiting Castilleja on Tuesday night.
The Knights already have lost twice to Mitty, ranked in one publication as the nation's No. 2 team. Menlo also has beaten St. Francis twice, which is significant considering that the Lancers defeated Harker in five games on Tuesday.
Menlo did lose three four-year starters, "but we have a strong senior class this year, which is leading the team. They have taken the young players and brought them along," Crader said.
Menlo's senior starters include 6-foot Lizzie Hale, 5-11 Abby Whelan, 5-11 setter Molly Bagshaw and 5-7 Alexis Schwartz. There are also senior reserves in 5-11 Eliza Pyne and 5-5 Amy Auerbuch.
Junior Mila Sheeline is a big contributor, having never played club volleyball, and 5-10 sophomore Allie Frappier has played a key starting role, as well.
Menlo went 28-10 a year ago and is setting its goals on a 10th straight league title, a third straight section crown and a berth in the NorCal finale.
"Division 4 CCS was very tough last year and should be even tougher this year, with Harbor, Harker, Sacred Heart Prep, Notre Dame-Salinas and others," Crader said.
The Gators went 28-8 last season, losing to Mt. Madonna in both the CCS and NorCal Division V finals. Three senior starters return from that squad in Adrienne Dreyfus, Taylor Docter and setter Morgan Jones. The Gators are off to a 7-6 start overall after beating Crystal Springs on Wednesday, 25-11, 25-17, 25-18.
A real concern this season is Docter's bad back, which sidelined her for the entire NorCal playoffs. It also limited her action against Menlo on Tuesday, putting more pressure on Dreyfus and junior Erin McLaughlin to produce offensively.
Veteran coach Tracie Meskell said she'll rest Docter as much as possible while focusing on reaching CCS again. While her squad is young — a combined five freshmen and sophomores — the Gators' bench is fairly deep.
Other key players include senior Elke Teichmann, junior Shelly Steyer, sophomores Laura Rose and Sophie Koontz, and freshman Lindsey Yang.
The Titans went 25-8 last season and are well on their way again (1-0, 14-4) after opening De Anza Division play with a 25-21, 25-13, 25-15 win over visiting Saratoga on Tuesday.
Gunn is tall, talented, deep and experienced. The senior starters include libero Emily Foster, 6-1 Jill Lau, 5-7 Lauren Ding, 5-11 Taylor McAdam while Karen Scrivner and Kelsey Teramoto see plenty of action along with junior DS Erika Hoopes.
Middle blocker Teresa Skelly, at 6-2, is another force at the net after joining the team late last season while fellow junior Chanel Miller is another key component to the team's success along with junior setter Shelley Kousnetz. Another big contributor is 5-9 freshman Julia Maggioncalda, who will be one of the better high jumpers in the CCS once spring arrives.
The Titans raised some eyebrows with a sweep of Sacred Heart Prep (which held wins over Presentation and St. Francis) last week. Gunn coach Raudy Perez has the talent to get it done, but his team will be tested in nearly every match. The Titans host Paly on Tuesday (6:45 p.m.) in the first of two showdowns.
"This season our pre-league schedule was considerably more challenging than last season, with matches versus Presentation, St. Francis and Sacred Heart Prep," Perez said. "It's great to know that we were able to compete with these teams despite not always winning the match."
As for the league season?
"I like the fact that there will be no easy matches, because it keeps me and the girls working hard and always wanting more," Perez said. "It's a lot of fun to go out and see the girls consistently challenged. It's especially exciting when we're playing at such a high level and winning."
The good news for the Bears is season is the departure of long-time PAL nemesis Menlo. The bad news? Woodside is still around and presents a big challenge this season.
Menlo-Atherton went 2-12 in league (7-27 overall) last season and has only two senior starters. Yet, the Bears were 2-0 (8-2 overall) after Tuesday's sweep of host Sequoia.
M-A opened the PAL with a big win over Carlmont, believed to be the Bears' first ever. Not bad for an extremely young team that has three freshmen and four sophomores.
Senior Kelli Branning, a relentless defender who is headed to Pepperdine University to play both indoor and beach volleyball, has been a strength for coach Dave Huan this season. Her fellow starters include junior setter Sophia Cornew, 5-10 sophomore outside hitter Regina Mullen (hitting .455 this season), 6-foot sophomore middle Diane Seely, 5-10 sophomore middle Kate Reardon, senior DS Adrian Holland and freshmen Hannah Branning and Seini Moimoi.
Key reserves (and contributors) include senior Kendall Eder, sophomore Sophia Dewar and freshman Sarah Collins.
"Being so young, we look to improve every day, but we also have very high goals," Huan said. "We're hungry to win every game, and win league for the first time in a long while."
Huan sees the PAL Bay Division race as fairly open, with 4-5 teams capable of winning the title. The league had four teams competing in CCS last season with Woodside, Aragon and Carlmont all losing in their respective semifinals.
Palo Alto began the week at 12-3 before hosting Mountain View on Thursday night in a SCVAL De Anza Division opener. The Vikings are led by senior co-captains are 5-11 Allie Coleman, 6-1 Ally Whitson and 6-1 Daniella Florant. Whitson is headed for UC Davis while Coleman (a setter) and Florant (a middle blocker) give the Vikings depth and experience.
"All are providing nice leadership to our team," said Paly coach Dave Winn.
Other seniors returning include Helene Zahoudanis and Eliza Stevens while Sara Kurihara is making her varsity debut this season.
"Junior Marissa Florant is having a breakout year at outside hitter, and is much improved over last year with her power, placement and passing," Winn said. "Our starting lineup has really been strengthened by the emergence of (6-3) frosh Melanie Wade at middle blocker." Wade leads the team in blocks.
Trina Ohms, a 5-11 sophomore, is up from the JV team and is contributing in the front row. Another JV grad is 5-9 libero Megan Coleman, who gives Paly two sets of sisters (the Florants and Colemans).
"The De Anza Division is going to be very competitive again this year," said Winn, whose team went 10-2 in league (27-11 overall) last year. "Homestead and Mountain View are probably the favorites on paper to win it . . . There are absolutely no gimmie matches as all teams have improved and return experienced players."
The Panthers (1-0, 5-1) are off to a good start, which includes their debut in the new Skyline Division of the WBAL. Pinewood should fare well in the division, which includes Woodside Priory, Crystal Springs and Eastside Prep.
Head coach Casey Kaveny has a solid group led by sophomore Hailie Eackles. She's joined by sophomores Audrey Proulx and Jenna McLoughlin plus seniors Alexis Wise and Chhaya Werner.
Others contributing include Lauren Chen, Lizzie Fields, Jen Jue, Jenny Hansen, Casey Cairo, Jessica Lacy and Michelle Tarlton.
The Panthers will get a good test on Friday (5:45 p.m.) at Sacred Heart Prep.
Sacred Heart Prep
The Gators have another new head coach in Damien Hardy, who has inherited a solid group led by senior setter Marissa Alvarez. The talented Alvarez runs the offense as well as anyone in the CCS. She sparked the Gators (9-4) to their most recent win, a 25-4, 25-9, 25-17 nonleague triumph over Crystal Springs on Wednesday, with 21 assists, nine digs and three aces.
Alvarez has plenty of support from seniors Kelly Halamek and Coca O'Donnell plus juniors Deanna Kneis, Margo Roux, Christine Renschler and Kira Whitehouse. Hardy has no underclassmen this season.
The switch to the WBAL is good news for SHP, which previously toiled in the West Catholic Athletic League against the likes of Mitty, St. Francis and Presentation. The Gators were winless in league last season and finished 18-21 overall, but reached the CCS Division V playoffs and advanced to the semifinals before losing to eventual NorCal champ Mt. Madonna.
The Panthers (1-0, 5-5) also are off to a good start under coach Rick Riebhoff in the new Skyline Division of the WBAL and should match up well with the competition.
Zoe Ciupitu is the only senior on the eight-player roster, which is led by juniors Lauren Schilling and Alix Franklin, both 5-8. Marie Trudelle, a 6-1 junior middle hitter, provides size in the middle along with 5-11 junior Jocie Schreiner. Other contributors include junior Jen Swan, and sophomores Mel Conde and Caroline Pillsbury.