Vikings will get a rematch
with St. Francis (Sacramento)
on Saturday in semifinals
Palo Alto was headed toward the best girls' volleyball season in school history a year ago when the Vikings' campaign was abruptly halted in the semifinals of the Northern California playoffs.
Palo Alto lost to St. Francis (Sacramento), finishing the season 36-5 while equaling the finish of the 2000 Paly team that also reached the semis before losing.
It's a year later and the Vikings are enjoying THE best season in school history with a 38-1 record. Palo Alto once again will face St. Francis (Sacramento) in the semifinals of the NorCal playoffs, this time in Division I.
This time, however, the Vikings will be playing at home and are seeded No. 2 while St. Francis-Sac (31-7) is No. 3.
"We are definitely focused and determined to beat SF Sac on Saturday, and will be preparing hard over the Thanksgiving break to reach the next step," said Palo Alto coach Dave Winn. "They are an opponent we know, so I guess that could benefit us. Plus, they knocked us out of the NorCal playoffs last year, so I think my girls will be very motivated to return the favor to them."
Because Palo Alto is the No. 2 NorCal seed, however, a victory on Saturday means a road trip for the NorCal finals next Tuesday.
"So, yeah, if we get past SF-Sac and have to travel to Stockton to play St. Mary's, it's certainly more challenging," Winn said. "But, getting to a state championship is supposed to be hard! We'll do our best."
Palo Alto wasn't at its best on Tuesday night in its NorCal opener at home, but the Vikings didn't need to be during a 25-14, 25-13, 25-13 victory over No. 7 Lincoln of San Francisco (19-12).
The Vikings rolled to an easy win behind junior Melanie Wade's 17 kills while once again raising the school record to single-season victories (38).
"Our girls played really well, and even the six girls I pulled up from the JV got in the match and made some good contributions," said Winn, whose team was elevated to No. 14 in the state this week by Cal-Hi Sports. This is the highest ranking in the team's history.
Lincoln, the San Francisco City champ, didn't have anyone to match up with Paly's tall front line of the 6-foot-5 Wade, 6-2 Maddie Kuppe and 6-foot Trina Ohms. The Vikings, however, struggled with their serving in Game 1 despite holding an 18-12 lead. After discussing the service errors, Paly righted itself and rolled.
Paly will be making only its second appearance in the NorCal semifinals since 2000. The Vikings lost to St. Francis (Mountain View) that year.
In another NorCal opener on Tuesday, Sacred Heart Prep, seeded No. 2 in Division IV, also advanced easily with a 25-17, 25-16, 25-9 romp over No. 7 Sutter (38-11) in Atherton.
Sacred Heart Prep (22-10) will host a NorCal semifinal on Saturday at 7 p.m., against No. 3 Marin Catholic (29-13). The Gators will need to start a little faster than they did Tuesday.
"We started off very slow!" said Gators' coach Damian Hardy. "I think we had a case of the first-round jitters. (But) We kept our passes on point and played great defense.
"A great crowd helped us battle through the first two sets. We finally got our defense to rurn into some offense and pull away in the third. Our serving was also tough."
Junior Sarah Daschbach led SHP with 12 kills, two aces and two blocks while sophomore Sonia Abuel-Saud had 13 digs and junior libero Olivia Bertolacci added 15 digs.
"Sutter put up a great fight," Hardy said. "They knew they had to play a great match and started out doing so. I think our crowd, defense, ball control and, eventually, our serving overwhelmed them."
Sacred Heart Prep, which was ranked No. 2 in the state Division IV poll this week by Cal-Hi Sports, will host a Marin Catholic team that swept No. 6 Golden Sierra on Tuesday, 25-21, 25-18, 25-18.
The Gators beat Marin Catholic in the first round last season before falling to Christian Brothers in the semifinals. This is only SHP's second appearance in the NorCal playoffs since 2001.
While Palo Alto and Sacred Heart Prep advanced, Menlo-Atherton did not — despite what was first listed at www.cifstate.org web site. Following the Bears' match with No. 4 Foothill in Pleasanton on Tuesday night, the No. 5 Bears were listed as 25-22, 29-27, 25-18 winners.
Unfortunately for Menlo-Atherton, the winner was listed incorrectly and the NCS champs actually had advanced.
The loss ended the prep careers of M-A seniors Regina Mullen, Diane Seely and Sofi King, who finished up 22-9 this season with a second straight appearance in the Central Coast Section finals. Mullen had nine kills while sophomore Ali Spindt contributed 12 digs.
Menlo-Atherton was a little better last Saturday, but still fell to top-seeded Palo Alto in the CCS Division I finals at Independence High in San Jose.
The Vikings had too much going for them, including Kimmy Whitson's 17th birthday.
Whitson celebrated twice on Saturday as Palo Alto captured the title with a 25-17, 25-19, 25-14 victory over the No. 3-seeded Bears.
Whitson first enjoyed the postgame celebration on the floor, which included hoisting the first-ever CCS trophy in Paly volleyball history. Then it was off to the cupcakes and balloons and the singing.
"What a present," said Winn. Whitson had to agree.
"It's so exciting," Whitson said. "We get a banner and, to be the team that made it happen is really special."
Palo Alto made the championship happen with all-around team play that hadn't been seen in nearly six weeks.
Palo Alto welcomed back Kuppe to the front row after she had been sidelined with a leg injury. Winn had nursed her along, sitting her for four weeks.
"I couldn't risk a stress fracture," he said.
Palo Alto played some 15 matches without Kuppe being in her normal position or even on the court. Amazingly, the Vikings only dropped the one match to Los Gatos in SCVAL De Anza Division play. Having Kuppe back on Saturday changed everything.
"It was the first time everyone was together since the end of September," Winn said. "We weathered the storm, through all the injuries . . . We felt like we were ourselves again."
Palo Alto never allowed M-A any momentum, even after the Bears grabbed a 5-1 lead in Game 2. Junior Melanie Wade served three of her six aces, the last one tying the match at 6. Senior Megan Coleman served an ace for 9-7 and Kuppe did likewise for a 12-8 lead. The Vikings continued to serve well, closing out the game with an ace.
Game 3, much like Game 1, was all Palo Alto. Caroline Martin served up a 4-0 lead, a kill by Kuppe made it 10-3, senior Trina Ohms aced the Bears for a 17-11 lead and Whitson blocked for a 19-12 bulge. It was over as quickly as it had started.
"I knew we could play that well, just not on the big stage," Winn said. "When we play that well, I don't think anyone can beat us."
Wade finished with 10 kills (hitting .421) with four digs and two blocks plus her six aces. Kupple contributed 11 kills (.300) with three aces, two blocks and two digs. Ohms added seven kills and six digs while Martin had five kills and seven digs. Whitson had 32 assists, seven digs and two blocks, senior Megan Coleman finished with 18 digs and junior Jackie Koenig had three kills and three blocks, including the match-winning solo block.
"It just wasn't the Melanie show today," said Winn, who walked onto the court following the final point with his arm's upraised. "I've been thinking about this for a long time. I'm going to cherish it."
His players will, too, but they just didn't show it that much in the postgame celebration. There was no dog pile and Winn didn't get any bucket of water dumped on him. Perhaps it was because the Vikings know the journey is not complete.
"We just made history, but I think they realize there's more," Winn said. "They're very goal-driven kids. We're really hungry to make it to state."
The state finals are at San Jose State on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.
"We want to go to state," Whitson said. "We've had goals a long the way. This (CCS title) was one of them."
In the CCS Division IV finals on Saturday, fourth-seeded Sacred Heart Prep avenged an early season nonleague loss by upsetting No. 2 Notre Dame-Belmont to successfully defend its section title on Saturday.
The Gators raced to an early lead before rallying for a 25-18, 25-22, 17-25, 22-25, 15-13 victory. It was Sacred Heart Prep's 12th section volleyball title in school history, the second in Division IV.
With the match down to the final game, the Gators grabbed a 10-6 lead before Notre Dame rallied to go up 12-11. A kill by Abuel-Saud put her team back on top 14-13, and a ball hit out of bounds gave SHP the win.
Abuel-Saud had 16 kills and 15 digs while Daschbach added 12 kills and 31 digs for the Gators. Junior setter Amelia Alvarez had 24 assists while junior Jesse Ebner added 10 kills and five blocks.