The top-seeded Knights swept their Division IV opener and the No. 4 Vikings took five games to advance, but the No. 4 Panthers dropped a 3-2 decision at home.
Palo Alto rallied from two sets down to pull out a 20-25, 23-25, 25-22, 25-22, 15-7 victory over North Coast Section champ San Ramon Valley. The Vikings improved to 25-10 and will face top-seeded Granite Bay (42-0) on Saturday in the semifinals in Sacramento.
"Always hard to win on the road, especially in the playoffs," said Paly coach Dave Winn. "We weren't quite ourselves in the first two sets. Don't get me wrong, San Ramon Valley is a great team and they were doing a lot of good things, but a lot of it was on our serve-receive and confidence. Our kids just found a way to make big plays down the stretch. And we road the momentum all the way into the fifth set. A very big win for the program."
Paly senior Becca Raffel kept the Vikings' hopes alive with a kill to end the marathon victory. Raffel finished with 17 kills and 19 digs. Freshman Jessica Lee provided the assist, her 39th of the match.
Paly coach Dave Winn said the victory was a milestone for his team, which had yet been able to rally from an 0-2 deficit this season. The third set was crucial, as Paly bounced back from an early 7-3 deficit to win that take the next two.
Junior Jade Schoenberger added 15 kills and 18 digs for Paly, which hit just .187 as a team. Sophomore Claire Dennis came up with six total blocks while senior Keri Gee had 30 digs and junior Anna Dukovic added 12.
Palo Alto, which fell to Homestead in the Central Coast Section Division I finals on Saturday (17-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-19), now faces its toughest opponent of the season in Granite Bay.
"Very solid team with a great setter," Winn said of Granite Bay. "We played them early in the season when we were running a very different lineup, and hung with them for the first half of both sets. It will take great performances from all our players to have a shot, but at least we have a shot."
Should Palo Alto pull off an upset, the Vikings will face the winner of No. 2 Homestead and No. 2 St. Francis (Sacramento) in the finals on Tuesday — also on the road.
Menlo School, meanwhile, will host the next two rounds as long as the Knights keep winning. Menlo got off to a good start on Tuesday as everything came up aces as the top-seeded Knights (30-5) rolled to a 25-11, 25-16, 25-12 victory over No. 8 seed Willows (30-7) behind nine aces from senior libero Melissa Cairo and three from freshman Jessica Houghton.
Menlo advances to Saturday's semifinals (7 p.m.) where the Knights will host No. 5 Hilmar (38-8), which cruised to a 26-24, 25-22, 25-20 win over Justin-Siena in the opening round.
"I think NorCals will get awfully intense as we move forward," Menlo head coach Steve Cavella said.
Senior outside hitter Lida Vandermeer led the Knights' attack against Willows with 13 kills on a .542 hit percentage. Sophomore outside hitter Maddie Stewart contributed with eight kills, while senior middle blocker Morgan Dressel chipped in five kills.
Menlo seemed a little lethargic at the beginning of the match, falling behind 6-3 against a Willows team that had to travel over two hours to make it to Atherton.
The Knights found their groove midway through the first game, and the Menlo supporters became more boisterous cheering on their team. Menlo finished on an 8-0 run to win the game, and take an early 1-0 overall advantage.
"It was really nice that we had a big crowd," said Cairo, who also totaled 16 digs on the night. "We got some people to come to our game which is fun."
The beginning of the second game saw the Knights continue their momentum, as Menlo jumped out to a 14-3 lead. The Honkers never came close to the Knights the rest of the game, and Menlo took a 2-0 overall advantage.
Willows made one last comeback attempt, controlling a 8-4 lead in the beginning of Game 3, but Houghton's three aces sparked a 6-0 Knights' run to put Menlo back out in front. Menlo never trailed in the third game again, winning the match on Cairo's final ace of the night.
"Any win like this is great, especially when we can play a lot of our players," a beaming Cairo said of the clean sweep over Willows. "Everyone works so hard in practice, they deserve to have some time out on the court."
Hilmar, which plays in the Trans-Valley League, most likely will represent a tougher test for the Knights, as the Yellowjackets boast 6-foot-2 standout sophomore outside hitter Emily Baptista. Baptista has terrorized opposing teams this year with an average of 15 kills a game on a .374 hitting percentage.
In order to defeat Hilmar and move on in the playoffs, Cairo acknowledged that Menlo had some areas which they could still tighten up.
"Tips and off-speed balls, those are the ones we struggle with the most," Cairo said. "It's also important that we keep the ball in and make as few errors as possible, because that is really going to matter in these tougher matches."
Should Menlo get past Hilmar, the Knights will host the NorCal title match Tuesday at 7 p.m., against either No. 3 Soquel or No. 2 Sonora. Menlo reached the NorCal playoffs by winning its first CCS Division IV title since 2008 on Saturday withh a 25-13, 25-13, 25-22 win over Soquel.
In Portola Valley, Priory (16-13) got 27 kills, 25 digs and five aces from senior Marine Hall-Poirier, but it still wasn't enough as the Panthers fell to No. 5 Bradshaw Christian (28-7) of Sacramento, 21-25, 25-23, 26-24, 22-25, 15-13 in a Division V opener.
Fellow senior Michaela Koval finished her final match with 33 digs while setter Riley Gallivan also played in her final match. The Panthers reached the NorCal finals last season, but limited numbers and a rash of injuries slowed Priory this season.
Priory earned a NorCal home match by winning its second straight CCS Division V title on Saturday over Crystal Springs, 25-9, 25-23, 25-19.