By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
This has been a season of firsts for the Palo Alto High girls' volleyball team. The Vikings won the SCVAL De Anza Division title, captured their first-ever Central Coast Section Division I crown, won their first Northern California championship and qualified for an appearance in the state finals for the first time.
There was one more 'first' needed to complete the season, and the Vikings got it on Saturday by rallying for a thrilling five-set victory over Long Beach Poly in the CIF Division I state finals at the San Jose State Event Center.
Palo Alto finished off a near-perfect 41-1 season with a 25-17, 20-25, 25-21, 11-25, 17-15 victory.
Coincidently, the Jackrabbits were ranked No. 1 in the nation according to the Freeman Rankings on MaxPreps.com, thus another first for Palo Alto -- beating a No. 1 team. Long Beach also was ranked No. 7 nationally by prepvolleyball.com, considered the expert voice for high school volleyball.
On Sunday, Palo Alto was elevated to No. 2 nationally behind St. Francis (35-5), which won the state Division II title on Saturday.
Paly junior Melanie Wade produced 15 kills, hit .375 with two digs and two blocks and was named the Most Valuable Player of the state Division I finals. Teammates Megan Coleman, a senior, and junior Caroline Martin joined Wade on the all-tournament team. Paly junior setter Kimmy Whitson won the sportsmanship award for her team.
"It's hard to believe it's over," said Paly coach Dave Winn. "But, what a way to end it."
Paly junior Maddie Kuppe clinched things for Paly in the fifth set, after the Vikings had to rally from a 12-9 deficit. The Vikings cut their deficit to 14-12 before junior Jackie Koenig made a solo block and Kuppe ripped a kill off a block to tie it at 14.
Facing match point again at 15-14, a kill by Long Beach Poly sailed long. It then came down to Kuppe, who served back-to-back floating serves that found the court for aces.
"This is the biggest thing that I've ever been involved in," Kuppe said. "It's a great feeling."
Then, and only then, Palo Alto had its fourth 'banner' victory of the season. Now the state banner will hang next to the NorCal, CCS and SCVAL banners that Palo Alto has collected this season.
"We talked about four banners at the beginning of the season, and we knew each successive one was going to be harder and harder to get," Winn said. "And we were right."
Palo Alto started off the state finals quite the contrary with its seemingly easy first-set victory. After Long Beach took the second, the Vikings knew they were in for a battle. Winning the back-and-forth third set was crucial as Paly trailed by 21-19 before Wade, Whitson and Kuppe took over.
Long Beach, however, charged back in the fourth set and pulled away from a 9-8 lead by scoring 11 of the next 12 points to take a 20-9 lead. The Vikings committed too many errors and couldn't get a block on USC-bound Bria Russ, who finished the match with a game-high 16 kills and 20 digs.
That set up the winner-take-all fifth set, which saw the teams trade points until the Jackrabbits grabbed a 12-9 lead. Winn called time at that point to steady his team. Paly came out and scored the next two points to get back in it and setting up Kuppe's heroics to win it.
"It's unbelievable," Kuppe said of the title. "More than anything … it's about focusing on the next point. So really, it was nothing. It was just another point. I had to go up knowing that if I didn't give it everything, I'd have regrets. And more than anything in those situations, it's about no regrets — leave everything on the court."
The final point by Kuppe set off a wild celebration by the Vikings, who at first almost didn't realize they had won.
"It really hasn't absorbed yet," said Wade. "I think tomorrow I'll wake up and be like, 'Wait, did we really do that?'" It feels great to win as a team. It wasn't one person, we all came out and played our game and fought really, really hard."
"Oh my goodness, it feels so good," said Whitson, who had 34 assists and 15 digs. "I can't believe it. I'll believe it in a few hours, but right now it's just so great."
Ohms said she gained inspiration from Palo Alto's football team, which overcame favored Valley Christian the night before to win the CCS Open Division title.
"What really fired us up was our football team winning CCS," she said. "That showed us that anything is possible."
And for Long Beach Poly's No. 1 ranking?
"They're just numbers," Ohms said. "When we play, it's all about heart and effort."
Winn said winning the state championship now elevates the program to a special height.
"Now, every year when the players come back, they know what they can build on," Winn said. "Anything is possible."
Like winning another state title next year?
"Absolutely," Winn said.