by Keith Peters
It began with a practice and ended with one. In between were 42 matches and the most remarkable season ever achieved by the Palo Alto High girls' volleyball team.
The Vikings won their first-ever Central Coast Section (Division I) title, captured their first Northern California crown and upended one of the top teams in the nation to claim their first CIF Division I state championship to finish the season with a 41-1 record.
The season officially ended last Saturday when Palo Alto pulled off a thrilling 25-17, 20-25, 25-21, 11-25, 17-15 victory over Long Beach Poly, which came in ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation and as low as No. 7.
Palo Alto coach Dave Winn, however, couldn't let it end on the floor of the San Jose State Event Center. So, on Wednesday night, the team met for a final time in the Paly gym.
"Last night was really just a celebration for the girls rather than a practice," Winn said. "We sat in a circle and talked for almost 45 minutes about the journey we all went through together, starting from the first day's goal-setting session all the way to winning a state title. It was tremendously fun to recount all the funny stories, and give thanks to everyone who did their jobs so well.
"We watched some video from the state title match, and I think everyone (especially me) got choked up a little bit when Maddie's last ace fell in and the whole team mobbed each other on the court. We talked about it being a four-banner season, and we got the job done. You can't help but feel extremely proud of setting such lofty goals and then achieving them."
Then the girls just played some volleyball.
"I always enjoy that during our last get together of the year," said Winn, "because it reminds me why they play this game — simply because they love the game and they love each other. I ended the celebration with one final quote: 'Winning and Losing are temporary. Glory and regret can last forever.' Since we gave it everything we had this season, we can enjoy the glory without any regret."
Palo Alto senior Megan Coleman echoed those sentiments.
"Overall, the season was amazing," she said. "We set a lot of goals at the beginning of the year, including winning league, winning NorCals, winning state and being the most-improved team in our league. We not only achieved them all, but we had so much fun doing it. I love all the girls on this team and I am so glad I got to share such an amazing experience with them. I couldn't have asked for a better senior season, and winning the state championship at the end was icing on the cake."
Paly 6-foot-2 junior Maddie Kuppe clinched things for Paly in the fifth set, after the Vikings had to rally from a 12-9 deficit. The Vikings cut their deficit to 14-12 before junior Jackie Koenig made a solo block and Kuppe ripped a kill off a block to tie it at 14.
Facing match point again at 15-14, a kill by Long Beach Poly sailed long. It then came down to Kuppe, who served back-to-back floating serves that found the court for aces.
"This is the biggest thing that I've ever been involved in," Kuppe said. "It's a great feeling."
Remarkably, Kuppe had suffered a fractured left pinky finger on just the fourth point of the match. She didn't know it at the time, however.
"Our trainers did a nice job taping her up, but there was no way she was going to let me take her off the court," Winn said. "Imagine that, winning a state title with a fractured finger?"
Kuppe finished with 10 kills, nine digs and the two biggest aces of her life. Paly junior Melanie Wade produced 15 kills, hit .375 with two digs and two blocks and was named the Most Valuable Player of the state Division I finals. Coleman and junior Caroline Martin (seven kills, 11 digs) joined Wade on the all-tournament team. Paly junior setter Kimmy Whitson, who had 34 assists and 15 digs, won the sportsmanship award for her team.
On Sunday, Palo Alto was elevated to No. 2 nationally in one poll behind St. Francis (35-5), which won the state Division II title on Saturday.
Palo Alto started off the state finals quite the contrary with its seemingly easy first-set victory. After Long Beach took the second, the Vikings knew they were in for a battle. Winning the back-and-forth third set was crucial as Paly trailed by 21-19 before Wade, Whitson and Kuppe took over.
Long Beach, however, charged back in the fourth set and pulled away from a 9-8 lead by scoring 11 of the next 12 points to take a 20-9 lead. The Vikings committed too many errors and couldn't get a block on USC-bound Bria Russ, who finished the match with a game-high 16 kills and 20 digs.
That set up the winner-take-all fifth set, which saw the teams trade points until the Jackrabbits grabbed a 12-9 lead. Winn called time at that point to steady his team. Paly came out and scored the next two points to get back in it and setting up Kuppe's heroics to win it.
"It's unbelievable," Kuppe said of the title. "More than anything … it's about focusing on the next point. So really, it was nothing. It was just another point. I had to go up knowing that if I didn't give it everything, I'd have regrets. And more than anything in those situations, it's about no regrets — leave everything on the court."
The final point by Kuppe set off a wild celebration by the Vikings, who at first almost didn't realize they had won.
"When we won the state championship I was so surprised," said Coleman, "and it took a while to sink in what actually had happened. The game itself was so much fun because we all competed really hard and we worked really well together. It was awesome to have so many fans there, and the fact that they were cheering so loudly really helped us play well. The atmosphere was amazing and it was such a neat feeling to know that we could do something really special that night. Even though we were the underdogs, we all know that if we played well, there was no stopping us."
Senior Trina Ohms said she gained inspiration from Palo Alto's football team, which overcame favored Valley Christian the night before to win the CCS Open Division title.
"What really fired us up was our football team winning CCS," she said. "That showed us that anything is possible."
Winn said winning the state championship now elevates the program to a special height.
"Now, every year when the players come back, they know what they can build on," Winn said. "Anything is possible."
Winn will return a strong nucleus of veterans in Martin, Whitson, Koening, Kuppe, Wade and Shelby Knowles, all of whom played in all five sets on Saturday. The only losses are Ohms and Coleman.
"Repeating as state champs is definitely going to be one of our outcome goals," Winn said. "But, all returners are going to work really hard to get better and help pick up for where Trina and Megan left off. The challenge, as always, will be to treat each season uniquely and not compare it to the prior. I'd say we did that very well this year and have every expectation we'll do a great with that next year."
Winn thought that last season's total of 36 wins would be tough to top and trying to exceed this year's 41 triumphs is virtually impossible.
"But, aren't records made to be broken?" Winn asked. "If we do things the right way, then I'll always feel better about how we're raising these student-athletes to be great women and leaders, more than how many wins we can amass in a season. I truly don't know the impact of my coaching until they return as alumni. Only then can I find out if they've retained the key lessons I'm trying to teach."
Coleman, for one, can't wait to return.
"I love playing for the Paly volleyball program and it feels so good to make history this season," she said. "It's nice to know that every time I come back to the Paly gym, I can see the banners and remember all the amazing things we have achieved this season. It is sad to think that I will never play another volleyball game for Paly, but I cannot think of a better way to go out!"