Battling to get better
M-A alone in first, but has yet to be at its best due to injuries
Had it not been for Palo Alto, who knows what the Menlo-Atherton girls' volleyball team could have achieved last season?
It was the Vikings who twice blocked the Bears from championships in 2011. The first time was in the Central Coast Section Division I title match. The second came in the NorCal championships.
Palo Alto wound up winning a second straight CIF Division I state title while the Bears took home the consolation prize of setting a school record for most single-season wins with 31.
With eight players returning from that team that went 31-7 and with Palo Alto graduating the core of back-to-back state title-winning teams, expectations were high for the Bears in 2012.
But, that was until head coach Jennifer Wilson left the program. M-A got an able replacement in Ron Whitmill, but he began the season with a slew of injuries that resulted in makeshift lineups.
"I think it's a little hard on the girls, but I think they've been doing a good job," said Whitmill. "Players have been coming in and out of the lineup; the lineups change a lot and roles change."
Two standouts from last season, senior Ali Spindt and junior Paulina King, have been in and out of the lineup. King is the reigning PAL Bay Division Most Valuable Player and King could be the best junior in the division.
King is back in the lineup, but now Spindt is out — most recently with a bad hip. She missed Tuesday's match due to illness and wasn't even in the gym. When she has played, she hasn't hit. King, meanwhile, has been hitting only the past couple of matches.
"We plan on having them both hitting by CCS," said Whitmill. "There are a lot of adjustments that the kids have to make. It's kind of keeping us from getting in good rhythm. (But) I think all in all, they're handling it well."
Despite missing Spindt, the Bears battled their way to a 24-26, 25-20, 26-28, 26-24, 15-13 victory over visiting Carlmont on Tuesday in a crucial PAL Bay Division showdown between the two best teams in the league. It was M-A's 25th straight victory in the division and, more importantly, kept the Bears in sole possession of first place at the halfway point in the league season.
Senior Katelyn Doherty and King provided a much-needed one-two punch for M-A as Doherty had 17 kills, 27 assists and 22 digs while King contributed 17 kills and 30 digs as the Bears improved to 7-0 in league (13-5 overall).
Carlmont, which was hoping to force a three-way tie for first place, instead fell two games behind M-A at 5-2 (10-10) in into third place behind Burlingame (6-1) prior to matches last night.
"We have some good, experienced volleyball players on this team," said Whitmill. "Paulina King and Doherty have been doing a good job of being leaders and picking up the slack."
The first game was a seesaw battle as both teams were scoring back and forth on kills by Doherty and King. Carlmont senior Kallan Bedard started off with seven kills in Game 1. Bedard had a solid game as she matched her career high with 29 kills.
The Bears stepped up in Game 2 when King, a junior outside hitter, spiked the ball passed the Scots' Amelia Tupou, giving M-A a 25-20 win to tie the match.
After Carlmont won Game 3, M-A was up 25-24 when sophomore outside hitter Alyssa Ostrow spiked the ball to Tupou, who double hit it and gave the Bears the win. Ostrow finished with nine kills and 26 digs.
The Bears' defense came up big in the fifth game. Bedard spiked three balls that went out of bounds, giving the Bears the 4-1 advantage. With the Bears up 12-11, Whitmill called a timeout, stopping a Carlmont rally.
"I told them to stay aggressive," said Whitmill. "In the games we've lost, we got a little tentative late into games. It's not so much about winning or losing, but focusing on the process of playing your ballgame."
After the timeout, the Bears got a clutch spike by King that deflected off Carlmont's Tupou, giving M-A the 15-13 game win and 3-2 comeback win. Doherty had four kills to help secure the triumph.
"Credit to Carlmont, they did a good job," said Whitmill. "When teams show up and play that well against you, it brings out the best in you."
Menlo-Atherton likely will be facing that kind of situation again this weekend when the Bears compete in the NorCal Classic at Vista del Lago High in Folsom. The 12-team field includes a host of talented teams, like Sacred Heart Cathedral, Granite Bay, Foothill (Pleasanton), Christian Brothers (Sacramento) and St. Ignatius. Granite Bay won the Harbor Invitational a few week ago, where Palo Alto and Sacred Heart Prep tied for third.
In the West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division), Menlo School cruised to a 25-22, 25-19, 25-16 over host Castilleja to improve to 4-0 in league (15-5 overall) and remained tied for first place.
The Knights finished with a team hitting percentage of .302 while collecting 10 team aces, 48 digs and 10 blocks.
"We had a solid effort tonight from just about every part of our game," said Menlo coach Atlee Hubbard.
Menlo setter Elisa Merten led the team in digs with 12 along with 28 assists and four aces. Junior Maddie Huber finished with a team-high nine kills, followed by Morgan Dressel with eight.
Lucy Tashman led Castilleja (0-4, 11-12) with 16 kills and 10 digs.
Menlo played at co-leader Sacred Heart Prep on Thursday night, with the winner taking over sole possession of first place. Sacred Heart Prep (4-0, 19-2) had its scheduled nonleague match with St. Ignatius canceled on Tuesday.
In the SCVAL De Anza Division, Palo Alto's winning streak in division came to an end, as did the Vikings' hold on sole possession of first place following a 25-13, 18-25, 25-21, 25-19 loss to host Los Gatos.
The setback ended Paly's division win streak at 21. The Wildcats were the last team to beat the Vikings in league play, that coming in 2010 at Los Gatos. That was the only setback Paly suffered that season during a 41-1 campaign that ended in a CIF Division I state championship.
The current Vikings were 6-1 in league (17-4 overall) and in a three-way tie for first with Los Gatos and Homestead prior to Thursday's game against the Mustangs.
Senior Shelby Knowles had 15 kills with junior Becca Raffel and sophomore Jade Schoenberger adding eight kills for the Vikings. Senior Sophia Bono finished with 35 assists with sophomore Anna Dukovic adding 11 digs.
Elsewhere, host Gunn dropped a 25-21, 25-10, 25-23 decision to Monta Vista. Lena Latour had 11 kills for the Titans (2-5, 9-10).