By Rick Eymer
Palo Alto Online Sports
Sacred Heart Prep 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, Tuesday night to claim the Northern California Division IV championship.
The next step could come as soon as Saturday when Sacred Heart Prep (24-10) meets La Jolla Country Day (23-4) for the state title at the San Jose State Event Center at noon. La Jolla is the No. 1 Division IV team in the state while SHP is No. 2, according to the updated Freeman Rankings on MaxPreps.com.
La Jolla also is ranked No. 5 in California in the overall rankings, while SHP is No. 37. Top-seeded La Jolla beat No. 2 Santa Fe Christian in the SoCal finals, 25-20, 25-19, 25-21.
Sacred Heart Prep, though, 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 the state title 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.
Meanwhile in Stockton Palo Alto qualified for its first trip to the CIF State Championships after winning its first-ever NorCal title with a 25-21, 26-24, 25-22 victory over host St. Mary's (Stockton) on Tuesday night in the Division I finale at Lincoln High.
Second-seeded Palo Alto improved to a school-record 40-1 while eliminating top-seeded St. Mary's (31-9).
"We played a very solid match last night, not a great match," Paly coach Dave Winn said on Wednesday morning. "But, solid was good enough to rattle St. Mary's."
Palo Alto, ranked No. 13 overall in the state and No. 10 among Division I teams in this week's updated Freeman Rankings on MaxPreps.com, will face the No. 1 team in the nation -- Long Beach Poly -- in Saturday's Division I state finals at the San Jose State Event Center at 7 p.m. Long Beach Poly (38-2), the No. 2 seed in the SoCal Championships, advanced with a 25-20, 22-25, 25-21, 22-25, 19-17 victory over No. 4 seed Redondo Union on Tuesday.
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 fhythm 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.
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 HS vball, 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.