By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
Of the five local prep basketball teams that will take the floor on Thursday night in the second round of the CIF Northern California, only one will be stepping into unknown territory.
It won't be the top-seeded Pinewood girls. They are the defending NorCal and state champion in Division V.
It won't be the No. 2-seed Eastside Prep girls, who won the Central Coast Section Division V crown in 2008 and advanced to the Nor Cal semifinals.
It won't be the No. 2-seeded Pinewood boys, even though last weekend's CCS Division V title was their first in 15 years. The Panthers won section crowns in 1987, '92 and '96 before advancing into NorCals and reached the quarterfinals last season before losing.
And, it won't be the No. 3-seeded Sacred Heart Prep boys, who reached the Division IV quarterfinals last season after winning their fourth section crown.
The newcomer is the Palo Alto girls' team. Prior to last weekend, the Vikings had never played in a CCS title game. Now, they have their first section championship tucked away and will be gunning for their first-ever victory in NorCals when they host No. 5 Lincoln of Stockton (26-4) at 7 p.m.
Palo Alto (22-4) will bring a No. 4 seed and 11-game win streak into the game, but seeds don't mean a whole lot at this point in the season. The Paly-Lincoln winner will be rewarded with a semifinal game Saturday at No. 1 Berkeley (28-1).
"They're a very good team," Paly coach Scott Peters said of Lincoln, which lost to No. 3 seed St. Francis (Sacramento) in the Sac Joaquin Section finals. Peters scouted Lincoln on Tuesday night in its 46-35 first-round win over No. 12 Castlemont.
"We're going to play our game," Peters said of Thursday's showdown. "If you're beating us at our game, we'll make adjustments . . . We just want to play well Thursday. Berkeley has four or five Division I players. How great is that if we get a chance to play them. It's just another great opportunity to play a team that's going to state. We can learn a lot about this."
Peters said just playing this deep into the season for the first time ever will provide his returning players with invaluable experience for next season.
"If you're a Mitty or Pinewood, you get an extra month of practice (each season)," Peters pointed out. "That's how you improve."
Peters will lose only two senior starters -- Sydney Davis and Katerina Peterson -- off this team, along with senior reserves Mariah Philips and Mary Albertolle. Everyone else will return with more experience and confidence after putting the Vikings on the basketball map.
Teamwork made all the difference this season for Palo Alto, plus the arrival Davis and 6-foot-2 sophomore Josie Butler. Suddenly, Peters had the talent and depth to substitute often and play all-out aggressive defense.
"Last year we tried to play like this, but I realized we didn't have the players that could do it," Peters said. "We didn't have 10 players to do this kind of pressing."
This season, Peters planned to play zone defense and apply full-court pressure. When Paly defeated visiting Gunn in the teams' first meeting, however, the Vikings were able to effectively press man-to-man for the first time.
"When we pressured them, it gave the girls confidence that we they could do it," Peters said. "When they beat Gunn, it gave them the psychological belief that we could play that way and be successful.
"I knew we had the talent, that I couldn't mess it up. We just had to play hard and be a team. We struggled with that a little last year. This year, they became a team . . . We don't have captains on the team because we want everyone to be a leader."
Prior to the CCS playoffs, Peters said: "I think the girls have done a great job this year of preparing to play each opponent and not taking teams for granted. We always say before every game: 'This is the most important game of the year.' The girls have bought into this and this has helped our focus throughout the year."
While Palo Alto isn't favored to get past this weekend, the Pinewood and Eastside Prep girls are. There's a very good reason why both Panther teams are ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, and favored to meet for the fifth time this season in the NorCal finals on March 19 at Folsom High. Pinewood also is ranked No. 1 in the state in Division V by MaxPreps while Eastside Prep is No. 2.
Each team needs to win twice more before then, starting with Thursday's second-round games. Pinewood (24-5), riding a nine-game win streak, will host No. 8 Rincon Valley Christian (30-3) at 6:30 p.m. while Eastside Prep (21-8) hosts No. 10 Vacaville Christian (21-9) at 7 p.m. Victories will move the Panthers into their respective semifinal games on Saturday, again on their home floors.
The Pinewood boys (22-5) will follow the girls' game, at 7:30 p.m., and take on No. 7 Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento (22-8).
Sacred Heart Prep (25-2) will host No. 11 St. Patrick/St. Vincent (25-8) of Vallejo at 7 p.m., with a chance to avenge last season's loss to that team in the second round. A victory by the Gators will earn them a semifinal game at St. Mary's of Berkeley, which handed SHP its last loss back on Dec. 18. Since then, the Gators have won 21 straight.
Sacred Heart is ranked No. 5 in the state in Division IV by MaxPreps, while St. Patrick/St. Vincent is No. 12.