After winning last year's CIF Division I state championship with a gaudy 41-1 record, Winn knew that his team needed to be tested more in 2011 if the Vikings were to return to the state finals.
So, like some fiendish professor with a penchant for grading tests, Winn lined up the toughest schedule possible for his Vikings — including an invitation to the prestigious Mitty Tournament plus nonleague matches with defending Division II state champ St. Francis and 2011 Division II state finalist Presentation.
Palo Alto came away from those six matches with just a 3-3 record, but the lessons learned from the competition — and losses — was invaluable.
"The Mitty Tournament was a real wakeup call," said Paly senior setter Kimmy Whitson. "It was the best thing that could happen to us. It was good for us to see how good we could be. It was a real turning point in the season."
Palo Alto bounced back from a 2-2 performance at Mitty to upend Presentation and then lose to St. Francis, both on the Vikings' court.
"It was great to be tested along the way," Whitson said.
Since that loss to St. Francis on Sept. 26, the Vikings haven't lost. They'll take a 20-match winning streak into Saturday's CIF Division I state championship finale against Marymount (Los Angeles) at Concordia University at 7 p.m.
The match will be televised by Comcast Sports Net Bay Area.
The defending champion Vikings bring a 35-3 record while Marymount is 33-4 after eliminating 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 advanced to its second straight state final for the first time in school history by winning the NorCal title on Tuesday by sweeping visiting No. 3 seed Menlo-Atherton, 25-17, 25-7, 25-15.
"We're definitely going to be prepared for Marymount," said Winn. "We'll do our best from watching some limited video footage to understand what they do well and where they might have weaknesses. But, in a state championship, it's mostly about heart and belief. Both teams will be very skilled and experienced."
Experience is one big reason why Paly is knocking on the door of history once again.
"We knew we could do it again," Whitson said of reaching the state finals. "We were coming back with basically the same team (after losing two senior starters) and we just needed to build from there."
The Vikings return with eight seniors, five of them starters.
"We're doing such a great job this year leveraging our senior experience and our leadership to be resilient in any situation," Winn explained. "And the girls hold themselves to a very high standard of play. So, when we have a lead, it's not just about holding the lead; it's about extending it. And, when we're behind, it's not about IF we can come back, it's about HOW we will come back."
Against Menlo-Atherton, the Vikings trailed just twice — 2-0 in the first set and 1-0 in the third. And, other than an 18-17 score in the opening set, Palo Alto maintained its control.
Everything worked in the Vikings favor, including the fact it was the seniors' final home match of their careers.
Senior Maddie Kuppe was reminded of that when she walked out of her house on Tuesday night and headed back to school.
"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 state championship match. That was something very real.
Palo Alto was aided in its title quest by the absence of M-A junior Ali Spindt, who missed three days of school this week with a virus. Spindt actually passed out at school on Monday.
"We were definitely thrown a curveball the day of the game when we found out Ali couldn't play," said M-A coach Jen Wilson. "She's been a staple in our lineup and is a valuable member of the team (as are all players). We worked on making some adjustments with the lineup to capitalize on our talent, and match up against Palo Alto's lineup. Given the situation, we knew the match would be a challenge and the team would have to step up.
"I am extremely proud of the girls for how they handled the adversity and stayed composed, working together as a team to play through the absence of Ali. People stepped up into positions they hadn't played all season and everyone made the effort. Although we didn't get the results we wanted, I don't feel as if it was a true showing of how good we can be as a team. I am definitely encouraged about next year."
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.
"Without her (Spindt), it wasn't the same fight," said 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. 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.
"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.
"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."
Now it's time to have a great season-ending match, and Professor Winn says he is very optimistic that his team is prepared.
"We will have studied all the materials and notes so we'll be ready to ace the test on Saturday," he said. "Even if our score is slightly lower then our opponent's, we will have no regrets about our preparation and effort. Of that, I am 100 percent confident."