Paly and SHP
girls all set
for big stage
Playing in the state finals seems fitting
way to end championship seasons
When Dave Winn was riding home from Stockton on the bus with his Palo Alto High girls' volleyball team from its NorCal Division I championship match on Tuesday night, he was in almost a dreamlike state.
He couldn't believe that his team actually had defeated top-seeded St. Mary's (Stockton) and earned its first trip ever to the state finals. Someone pinch me. Did it really happen?
"I still am hoping CIF doesn't call me to say that there was a problem with last night's match and we have to do it over," Winn said Wednesday. "It still hasn't sunk in yet that we just won NorCal."
Believe it, the Vikings did. Not only that, so did the Sacred Heart Prep girls' volleyball team on the same night. Thus, Palo Alto (40-1) will play for the CIF Division I State Championship and Sacred Heart Prep (24-10) will compete for the Division IV title on Saturday at the San Jose State Event Center.
The Gators will take the floor at noon against defending state champion La Jolla Country Day (23-4), which is ranked as high as No. 5 in the state in one internet poll. The Vikings will play in the marquee match at 7 p.m., facing Long Beach Poly. The Jackrabbits (38-2) are ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation in one poll and a legitimate No. 7 by prepvolleyball.com, which has Paly as No. 49 nationally.
Palo Alto and Sacred Heart Prep are the first two local teams appearing in the state finals since 2001, when Menlo School (Division IV) and then-Woodside Priory (Division V) both lost. No two local teams have ever won state titles in the same year.
"We are excited to play Long Beach," said Winn, who is 163-38 in his fifth season at Paly. "I know we are facing an uphill challenge against Poly, since they have more 'marquee ' players. But, we have just enough belief to get it done. I really like our chances, if we execute well and don't get freaked out being on the big stage."
The fact that Palo Alto only has to drive to San Jose State should help, along with Tuesday's 25-21, 26-24, 25-22 sweep of top-seeded St. Mary's (31-9) in the NorCal Division I championship match in front of a hostile crowd in Stockton.
"We played a very solid match last night, not a great match," Winn said on Wednesday morning. "But, solid was good enough to rattle St. Mary's."
St. Mary's focused on stopping 6-foot-5 Paly junior Melanie Wade, and pretty much did while limiting her to just six kills, four blocks and one ace.
"It was clear St. Mary's was trying to stop Melanie Wade," said Winn, "as they had two blocks committing to her all night. They were able to hold Melanie to only six kills, but our OHs were not stopped."
Senior Trina Ohms stepped up with 11 kills while 6-2 junior Maddie Kuppe also contributed in a big way with 12 kills (.353 with no errors) plus 11 digs, three aces and a block. Junior Caroline Martin added four kills and 10 digs.
"Our tough serving was a big differentiating factor as we never allowed St. Mary's to get into the rhythm of their offense," Winn said.
Junior setter Kimmy Whitson had another solid all-around game with 30 assists, two kills, four aces, two blocks and seven digs while senior Megan Coleman added 14 digs and three aces as the Vikings won 40 games for the first time in school history. Only seven other teams in the nation have records better than Paly.
Surprisingly, perhaps, was that St. Mary's had beaten St. Francis (Sacramento) in the Sac-Joaquin Section finals. Paly lost the first game in its semifinal win over St. Francis, but swept past St. Mary's with relative ease.
"I think St. Mary's and St. Francis are actually very similar in their approach to offense and defense, so it surprised me that St. Mary's was able to sweep SF," Winn said. "But, that's the thing about high school volleyball, it's about who executes better that night . . . not necessarily who is the better team. We had a tone of resolve last night, and that got us through any rough spots or pressure-filled situations."
It's the same kind of resolve that Palo Alto will need on Saturday, as it goes after the first state title in program history.
Sacred Heart Prep also should have plenty of resolve heading into their championship match. On Tuesday night, junior Jesse Ebner took a look at the all the championship banners adorning the walls inside the school's gymnasium and felt something was missing from the girls' volleyball banner — no state championship appearances since 1998 and no state titles since 1996.
The Gators took the first step in rectifying the missing data when they beat visiting Notre Dame of Belmont, 19-25, 14-25, 25-14, 25-16, 15-9, to claim the NorCal Division IV championship.
The next step could come as soon as Saturday in the state finals. Sacred Heart Prep is looking forward to the challenge after a thrilling victory.
"Last year's team ended the CCS (losing) streak," Ebner said. "It was our time to get back to the state tournament."
Sacred Heart went 11 years between CCS titles from 1998 to 2009. The late '80s and '90s were kind to the Gators as they won 10 of 11 CCS titles between 1988 and 1998, missing only in 1989. Then came the 10-year drought.
The Gators also ended a seven-match losing streak to Notre Dame last year, which dated to 2000. Sacred Heart is 4-3 in its past seven meetings with the Tigers.
Sacred Heart Prep won Division V state titles in 1995 and 1996, and was the NorCal champ on four other occasions (1991, '92, '93 and '98).
"We talked a lot about that this week in practice," Ebner said. "We take so much pride in our team and our school that we wanted to come back from last year and do something amazing."
It was only fitting that the Gators and Notre Dame met for the chance to play for a state title. The Tigers and Sacred Heart Prep also dueled for the Central Coast Section title about 10 days ago at Independence High in San Jose.
The Gators prevailed in five sets in that contest. Notre Dame won two previous nonconference matches during the season. This time Sacred Heart made it a little more difficult on itself, dropping the first two games in excruciatingly frustrating fashion.
After dropping the second game, the Gators fled the gymnasium for the brief three-minute intermission and pulled themselves together just in the nick of time.
"I knew after that meeting in the hall we could turn it around," said SHP junior Sarah Daschbach. "We were almost embarrassed with our effort. Our motivation mostly came from our coach, Damien (Hardy). He believed in us and we believed in each other."
The Tigers took a quick 4-0 lead in the third game before Daschbach's service ace, two blocks from sophomore Ellie Shannon and sophomore Sonia Abuel-Saud's kill put an end to that. The burst seemed to mark an irrevocable shift in momentum.
"I think we just came out too tight," Ebner said. "We weren't talking to each other. We came back with more energy in the third set and that made a lot of difference."
The Gators took advantage, building on their lead until it became an 11-point edge by the time a hitting error gave Sacred Heart the third-game win, which carried over into the fourth game.
Notre Dame took a 6-4 lead in the final set before the Gators rallied for nine straight points. The only drama afterward was who would get to loft the NorCal trophy overheard first.
Daschbach led Sacred Heart with 16 kills and 18 digs. Abuel-Saud added 14 kills and 17 digs. Ebner had 11 kills and recorded 4.5 blocks while Shannon had five blocks and seven kills. Junior libero Olivia Bertolacci added 23 digs while senior setter Hanna Elmore finished with 32 assists.
Sacred Heart Prep heads into the state finale with only two seniors, Elmore and Vivian Wu, on the roster. Clearly, this is a team of the future. The same could be said for Palo Alto, which also has only two seniors — Ohms and Coleman — on its roster.
For those four seniors, however, the future is now. State titles certainly would be the perfect way to finish up.