By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
It was a lesson learned for the Palo Alto High girls' volleyball team on Saturday, one that didn't take a loss and one that could take the Vikings deeper into the postseason than they've ever gone before.
"I think we took it for granted that we could win with our offense," said Paly coach Dave Winn. "But, we had to play defense. Quite honestly, we were lucky to win that first game. This was a good learning experience."
Palo Alto faced Monta Vista in a Central Coast Section Division I quarterfinal on Saturday at Valley Christian High in San Jose. The Vikings were seeded No. 1 while the Matadors were No. 8. Paly had beaten Monta Vista twice during the SCVAL De Anza Division season and came out Saturday playing like the Matadors would roll over quickly.
Instead, Monta Vista played scrappy and hit the floor for every ball. The Matadors even had two set points in Game 1 before the Vikings finally prevailed and went on to register a 27-25, 25-10, 25-11 triumph.
The victory advances Palo Alto (35-1) to the semifinals on Thursday against No. 5 Carlmont (21-13) at Watsonville High at 5:30 p.m. The Scots advanced with a 25-21, 22-25, 23-25, 25-17, 15-12 win over No. 4 Salinas on Saturday.
Also advancing in Division I was No. 3 Menlo-Atherton (21-7), which will take on No. 2 seed North Salinas (28-4) in the other semifinal (7:30 p.m.). The Bears eliminated San Benito, 25-17, 25-17, 25-18 Regina Mullen and Diane Seely each had eight kills while Hannah Branning added 20 digs from her libero position. Mullen also had three aces and nine digs.
Seventh-seeded Gunn (28-7) was eliminated following a 25-9, 25-15, 26-24 loss to host North Salinas.
Thanks to its close call in Game 1 on Saturday, Palo Alto won't be taking anyone too lightly the rest of the way.
"We need to do a better job of respecting our opponent," Winn said. "We knew from the last time we played them that they would be scrappy. And, we had a tremendous amount of hitting errors (in Game 1). Our hitters had to be smarter with their hitting."
After the eye-opener in the first game, Palo Alto settled down and played like the team that's ranked No. 15 in the state in Division I and No. 1 in Northern California in the same division.
"It sure was a nice little bit of breathing room to have after that first game," Winn said.
Palo Alto's hitting improved in the second and third games, as did its passing and defense. Junior Melanie Wade took over and produced 17 kills (.414 hitting) with four blocks. Senior Trina Ohms added eight kills and eight digs, all the while realizing her team needs to play better.
"This wasn't our best game this season," said Ohms, who voiced her disapproval of Game 1 to her teammates. "I told the team that we've got to step it up, that Monta Vista is here to prove something."
Junior Caroline Martin stepped it up and finished with six kills and .400 hitting from her opposite position. She added nine digs and four aces. Junior setter Kimmy Whitson contributed 40 assists with six digs, three blocks, three aces and three kills in a solid all-around effort. Sophomore Shelby Knowles added five kills (.357 hitting) with three digs.
Palo Alto now is a victory away from tying the school record for most single-season wins (36), set last season when the Vikings reached the NorCal semifinals before losing. The state rankings, however, say that Palo Alto should go even further this season.
"But," Winn reminded, "there's no flying under the radar any more."
In a showdown that had been played out before during the West Bay Athletic League, No. 4 Sacred Heart Prep defeated No. 5 Menlo School, 19-25, 25-22, 25-17, 25-21, in the section quarterfinals on Saturday at Valley Christian in San Jose.
The victory moves the Gators (19-10) into the semifinals on Wednesday against top-seeded Soquel (27-6), which survived with a 22-25, 25-17, 22-25, 26-24, 17-15 win over No. 9 Notre Dame-Salinas.
Juniors Sarah Daschbach and Sonia Abuel-Saud led the Gators with 20 kills each, while Daschbach added 18 digs and Abuel-Saud finished with 21. Senior Hannah Elmore provided 27 assists and junior setter Amelia Alvarez added 20.
Sacred Heart Prep had beaten Menlo twice during the WBAL season and, as SHP coach Damian Hardy said, "It's hard to beat a good team like Menlo three times."
Thus, the Knights grabbed an early lead by winning Game 1 as junior Natalie Roy had four kills and two blocks. Menlo (21-16) continued to play well and led in Game 2 by 22-20 before the Gators rallied.
Hardy credited two things to his team's turnaroud. One, he moved junior outside hitter Jesse Ebner to middle blocker the remainder of the match and she proved dominant there.
"She's a beast," Hardy said of Ebner, who led the team in celebrations after nearly every point. "She just played out of her mind. Volleyball is a game of momentum."
The other factor in the turnaround was a comeback victory over Valley Christian earlier in the season.
"The last time we played in this gym against Valley Christian (in a nonleague match), we started out real well and led 2-0. Then it was 2-2 and we were trailing 8-0 in Game 5 before we came back. That was the turning point of our season. At 8-0 in Game 5, I was ready to pack up my ball cart."
Hardy said that comeback provided his team with the knowledge they could come back from any deficit, something they used after falling behind to Menlo on Saturday.
"We lost seven seniors off this team," Hardy explained. "We were supposed to be rebuilding."
Despite starting this season as the defending CCS Division IV champion, Hardy said he had no thoughts of repeating.
"Are you crazy?" he asked.
"(But) the kids had to give me everything I asked for, and they did that every time."
Sacred Heart Prep is now two wins from a successful title defense, but it won't be easy. Even if the Gators get past No. 1 Soquel, there's either No. 2 Notre Dame-Belmont or No. 3 Mercy-Burlingame waiting in the finals – teams that SHP lost to during the regular season.
While SHP was young to start the season, Menlo was even younger with only four seniors – two of which ended up being injured most of the season. That left coach Chris Crader with three freshman starters, one of which (Maddie Frappier) had to learn a new position (setter) when sophomore Alexandra Ko was injured a few weeks ago.
"Overall, I thought the girls played quite well, and they played really hard," said Crader. "We came out and did everything we talked about in practice. There were a few key moments where things just didn't quite go our way, and that proved to be the difference, but our effort was excellent from start to finish.
"We had our chances, but we don't have overwhelming firepower. Late in the games when other team's defenses are dialed in, it's tough to put it away."
That was the case Saturday as SHP became more aggressive on offense and defense while stopping Menlo's attack. The Knights did get a career-high 21 digs with 12 kills and three blocks from Roy. Freshman Maddie Huber added 10 kills and 18 digs while senior Jazmin Moledina capped her prep career with nine kills, five digs and three blocks. Sophomore Drew Edelman added seven kills, freshman Melissa Cairo had 17 digs, and Frappier recorded 28 assists and seven digs.
"Obviously, it's always tough when you lose the last match of the season, but these girls have a lot to be proud of," Crader said. "After losing six girls who started most of last year, and starting four first-year varsity players during the playoffs, these girls really accomplished some nice things this season. Our four seniors will really be missed, but their personalities will stay with this team for years to come."
Top-seeded Castilleja (26-8) had little trouble advancing in its CCS competition while posting a 25-10, 25-13, 25-13 triumph in a quarterfinal on Saturday against No. 8 Alma Heights (13-9) at Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Junior Hannah Boland led the Gators with 14 kills and eight blocks while sophomore setter Hannah Hsieh added 25 assists and five aces.
Castilleja next will play No. 4 Santa Catalina (17-10) in the semifinals on Thursday at Alma Heights at 5:30 p.m. Santa Catalina advanced with a 25-18, 25-22, 25-22 win over No. 5 Anzar. In the top half of the bracket, No. 3 Crystal Springs will meet No. 2 Mt. Madonna in the other semifinal.