The walls are filled with championship banners, but something is missing in the Castilleja gym. While there are banners recognizing the Gators' two previous appearances in the state volleyball finals, one for winning a state championship is no where to be seen.
"Maybe the third time is a charm," said Castilleja coach Tracie Meskell.
Meskell and her Gators will find out Saturday morning when Castilleja (17-16) faces off against Tri-City Christian (23-14) of Vista (San Diego area) in the CIF Division V State Championships at the Bren Center on the campus of UC Irvine.
The Gators made their first trip to the state finals in 2005 and returned in 2006. Both appearances resulted in frustrating losses that came so close to being exhilarating victories.
"In 2005, everyone thought we were going to take it," said Meskell, who has coached the Gators to their three state berths. "We had the big hitters, but we underperformed. They (Santa Fe Christian) made us make mistakes."
Castilleja showed its nerves in that first state finale. The Gators couldn't pass and having big hitters like Ariel Baxterbeck and Alissa Flesher didn't matter. Castilleja lost in three games to finish the year 36-7.
"In 2006, we had the defense and we were better prepared," Meskell recalled. "But, we got timid trying not to make mistakes."
Castilleja had a chance to win the state title in three games, but lost a big leads in Game 2 (23-25) and again in Game 4 (21-25) and eventually lost when Bakersfield Christian had a six-point serving run in Game 5. Castilleja finished the season 22-18.
Castilleja senior Taylor Docter played on both of those teams. She now has a chance to make up for those defeats. Meskell, in fact, believes her current team is ready.
"This squad is one of our all-around better teams," she said. "We have everything -- defense, passing, setting and hitting. We're more even across the board, more balanced without a huge weak spot."
Meskell compares this Castilleja team to the '05 squad, because of its talent. The '06 team, she said, didn't have a go-to player who could be counted upon in crucial situations. Docter fills that role now. The Gators also are solid with senior setter Morgan Jones, senior outside hitter Adrienne Dreyfus, junior outside hitter Erin McLaughlin, sophomore Laura Rose, junior spark plug Shelly Steyer and libero Lindsey Wang and fellow freshman Pauline Ryan. There's also senior Elke Teichmann and freshman Hannah Boland plus a strong supporting cast.
Perhaps most important, Castilleja has that valuable commodity known as experience. Docter is in her third state final while Jones and Dreyfus are in their second.
"We have people who have been there," Meskell said. "We have the experience; we have all the components. I think this team will have the composure."
The Gators certainly showed their composure since losing to top-seeded St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic in the Central Coast Section Division V finals on Nov. 22. Castilleja was nervous to start the match and then made mistakes at crucial times while losing that day, 25-23, 26-24, 25-23.
Meskell knew her team was better than that and set out to prove it. She changed her rotation and even got back into practices while simulating the other team's big hitter. Meskell, after all, was a star player for Menlo-Atherton in the '90s when she was still Tracie Hubbard.
The loss in the CCS finals sent the Gators on the road for the NorCal playoffs, but that didn't really matter. Sixth-seeded Castilleja swept No. 3 Hamilton and No. 2 Marin Academy to earn a rematch with No. 1 St. Francis-CCC on Tuesday night on the Sharks' home floor in Watsonville.
Payback was ever so sweet as Castilleja avenged its loss in the CCS finals with a dominating 25-14, 25-20, 25-13 victory. It was the Gators' fourth straight appearance in the NorCal finals and arguably its best performance.
Docter had 12 kills, 12 digs and five aces to spark the Gators while Dreyfus added 12 kills, McLaughlin had 10 kills and Jones contributed 30 assists.
"I didn't expect to win in three," Meskell said. "I thought in four or five."
Meskell believed that St. Francis-CCC might have taken the Gators too lightly, given the Sharks' sweep in CCS. This, however, was a different Castilleja team. Meskell changed her rotation to get Dreyfus to the front row earlier and to get more blockers on the Sharks' 6-foot-3 standout hitter Catherine Brown. Meskell also moved Wang to libero and tweaked a few other things. The rest was up to the players.
"The girls just clicked," she said. "All those things finally jelled."
The season essentially has been a training ground for this point in the season. Castilleja played in the tough West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) against the likes of NorCal playoff teams like Menlo, Harker and Sacred Heart Prep. The Gators took their lumps during a 1-9 league season.
"In October, we had our doubts if we could pull it together," Meskell said of a stretch that included six losses in seven matches. "But, if we had an easy league, we never would have figured this all out."
Bottom line, Castilleja learned by losing.
"We just took it a month at a time," Meskell said. "It was never a team goal to win state."
But now the Gators are a victory away from doing just that. Meskell doesn't know much about Tri-City Christian and probably prefers it that way.
"Knowing the other team is only important for me, for my peace of mind," she said. "For them (the players), it's better to just focus on their game and not the other team."
And Meskell's final advice to her players now?
"We still just need to play our game and win the first five points of each game," she said. "That's a good way to start off. If we can play the way we've been playing (in NorCals), we'll be tough to beat. But, I thought that way in 2005, too!"