Last season, the Vikings once again reach the NorCal semifinals. They avenged the previous year's loss by beating St. Francis and advancing to the program's first NorCal title match since 2000 — and only the second in school history.
Palo Alto defeated St. Mary's (Stockton), advanced to the CIF Division I state final and won it to finish 41-1.
So, here we are again. Paly is 33-3 heading into Saturday's NorCal Division I semifinal. While the record isn't as glossy as the previous season's, the Vikings have been battle-tested like never before.
"We are a far more experienced and mature team this year than last year, heading into NorCals," said Winn. "Last year was all about 'what if' and 'could we.' This year is all about 'how we will' and 'we can.' The girls are working really hard to make sure they leave nothing to chance."
Palo Alto has been almost methodical in its approach this season. Winn knew the only way his team could improve and get back to the state finals was to play a tougher schedule. That resulted in three losses, including one to defending Division II state champ St. Francis (Mountain View).
Since that loss to the Lancers, Palo Alto has won 18 straight — the last victory coming against Menlo-Atherton in the Central Coast Section Division I finals last Saturday at Independence High in San Jose. The Vikings' 25-19, 25-19, 25-14 victory was solid and complete, earning Paly its first-ever No. 1 seed for the NorCal playoffs.
Palo Alto received an unusual first-round bye because the Oakland section champ, Balboa, is a Division III team.
"We're taking advantage of the bye to do some preparation on lineups and defensive sets, to match up well with our potential opponents for the next two rounds," Winn explained. "I'm very happy with our situation."
Palo Alto will open defense of its NorCal title by hosting No. 4 seed San Ramon Valley (35-8) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The match originally was scheduled for 7 p.m., but changed so not to conflict with Paly's CCS Open Division football semifinal against St. Francis at San Jose City College at that time.
San Ramon Valley advanced with a 25-9, 25-6, 25-14 win over No. 5 Skyline (Oakland) in the first round. Should Palo Alto win on Saturday, it will host the NorCal title match for the first time ever on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The Vikings would face either No. 2 St. Francis (Sacramento) or No. 3 Menlo-Atherton. Paly has victories over both teams already this season. The Vikings take a No. 21 national ranking in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 list into the semifinals.
While Palo Alto enjoyed its bye, four other local girls' teams took the floor on Tuesday in the opening round of the NorCal playoffs. Only three of those squads, however, will be playing in the semifinals on Saturday as Menlo-Atherton, Sacred Heart Prep and Priory all advanced while Castilleja did not.
Menlo-Atherton improved upon last season's first-round exit in the playoffs by holding off No. 6 seed St. Mary's of Stockton (27-10) in a 25-22, 21-25, 25-15, 20-25, 15-9 opening-round Division I marathon on Tuesday night in Atherton.
Versatile junior Ali Spindt led the Bears with 18 kills and 17 digs. Sophomore Pauli King contributed 12 kills and nine digs while senior Sarah Collins had 37 assists, 13 digs and three aces in her final home match.
The No. 3-seeded Bears (30-6) next will visit No. 2 seed St. Francis-Sacramento (38-5) in the semifinals on Saturday at 7 p.m.
While Menlo-Atherton hosted its opener, both Sacred Heart Prep and Priory had to play on the road and came up with successful efforts.
Sacred Heart Prep bounced back from falling to Soquel in the CCS Division IV title match and took its first step toward defending its NorCal Division IV title by sweeping host Willows, 25-15, 25-11, 25-15 on Tuesday night near Chico. Senior Sarah Daschbach led the Gators with 13 kills and three aces while junior Ellie Shannon and senior Jesse Ebner each added six kills apiece.
The No. 5-seeded Gators (24-7) will remain on the road for Saturday's semifinals, taking on No. 1 Union Mine (30-5) in El Dorado County. The winner will play the Marin Catholic-Soquel winner for the NorCal championship on Tuesday. Sacred Heart would be on the road against either team.
Just two days after suffering a defeat in the Central Coast Section Division V finals, Priory bounced back in a big way and kept its season alive with a 14-25, 25-17, 25-14, 25-23 victory over No. 4 Ripon Christian (27-11) in a Division V opening-round match in the Central Valley near Manteca.
None of the Panthers had played in a NorCal match before and thus the score of the first match. Junior Brianna Willhite sparked Priory in the second set and the Panthers just rolled after that. Sophomore outside hitter Marine Hall-Poirier had 10 kills, 11 digs and two aces to lead Priory with junior Clara Johnson adding 11 digs, eight kills and three aces.
The No. 4-seeded Panthers (26-5) next will visit No. 1 Branson (37-1) in the semifinals on Saturday in Ross. The winner will play in the NorCal finals on Tuesday, with a berth in the state title match at stake.
Coming off arguably its biggest win of the season in the CCS Division V title match against Priory on Saturday, Castilleja suffered perhaps its toughest loss in a 25-21, 25-23, 25-18 setback to No. 6 San Francisco University in the opening round of the NorCal playoffs on Tuesday in Palo Alto. The No. 3 Gators finished their season 20-15.
Serving errors plagued the Gators in the first set and 15 straight points in the second set doomed Castilleja before University went on a 6-1 run to close out the match in the final set. Senior Hannah Boland had 10 kills in her final match with junior Lucy Tashman contributing seven. Seniors Lindsey Wang, Camille Stroe and Zara Saraon also suited up for the final time. The Gators went 82-59 during the past four years, which included a state title in the senior's first season in 2008.
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