By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
The curtain goes up on special seasons for the Palo Alto football and girls' volleyball teams on Friday. The big question facing both squads is whether they'll get stage fright.
Members of both teams participated on the biggest stage of their lives last season and performed to standing ovations as each claimed state championships. It was the first such titles for each program in 113 years of Palo Alto sports history. The Vikings also have two state crowns in boys' basketball (1993 and 2006).
The 14-0 season by the football team and 41-1 record by the volleyball squad led the way for the finest athletic season in Paly history. The school was duly recognized when MaxPreps named Palo Alto as the No. 8 athletic program in the nation this past June.
St. Thomas Aquinas of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was ranked No. 1. De La Salle of Concord was the only Northern California school ranked ahead of Paly at No. 6. Palo Alto finished ahead of perennial powers Mater Dei (No. 9), the No. 1 team in 2009, and Long Beach Poly (No. 10).
"That's pretty amazing," said Earl Hansen, Paly's athletic director and head football coach. "I don't know if it will ever happen again. We're a public school. We do the best we can with what we have."
While he was speaking about his team, Hansen could have been talking about Dave Winn's volleyball squad when he said" "It's a history-making record for Paly and it will always be there . . . people can only tie it."
Both teams will have the opportunity to just that this season. Paly will put a 14-game win streak on the line when it opens its football season at home on Friday against San Benito at 7:30 p.m., while the volleyball squad -- which finished 2010 on a 15-match win streak -- begins defense of its state title at the annual High Sierra Classic in Reno earlier in the day.
Both squads open with extremely high expectations and lofty preseason rankings.
MaxPreps has Hansen's squad ranked No. 2 in the Central Coast Section behind Valley Christian and 20th in the state. The volleyball team is ranked No. 8 in the state by MaxPreps and No. 9 in the nation by prepvolleyball.com.
"Quite an honor," said Winn. "I don't think there is any doubt there is a bull's eye on our backs this season. We're up for the challenge."
Two big challenges for Winn will be integrating 16 players into the flow of varsity practices and matches in addition to replacing the graduated Trina Ohms (380 kills, 38 aces) and Megan Coleman (543 digs, 51 aces), two big reasons behind the Vikings' extraordinary success and why the team was named the MaxPreps national Female Team of the Year.
"I took 16 this year knowing I'll be having eight seniors graduating," Winn said. "I've got to be building for the future while maximizing the present. The balance is always a tough thing to do, and I'm committed to making it happen for all 16 girls."
Winn returns nine players from last season's championship squad, which captured the CIF Division I title with a shocking five-set win over favored Long Beach Poly. Four starters are back plus a handful of talented players who contributed throughout the 41-1 season that set a school record for most victories.
"Kimmy Whitson (1,148 assists) is back and better than ever at setter," Winn said. "Melanie Wade (537 kills) has improved her all-around game at middle blocker and can even play some outside hitter and opposite. Maddie Kuppe (227 kills) is going to carry quite a lot of the load at OH. We're still working on a replacement for Trina at the other pin, and the competition has been great.
"Megan's void is definitely felt since she was such an extraordinary libero. But, we've had the return of Ashley Shin to varsity after taking her junior year off to focus on academics. Returner Tiffany Tsung helps shore up the defense along with Shelby Knowles. Soph Keri Gee is a newcomer that should compete for defensive time."
Senior outside hitter Caroline Martin and senior middle blocker Jackie Koenig are back to solidify the starting lineup while senior Ally Kron and junior Savannah Owens also return from last season's squad.
Palo Alto returns to the High Sierra Classic as the defending champion. The Vikings went 9-0 in the two-day event last season to begin a 26-match win streak. That was interrupted by an upset loss to visiting Los Gatos on Oct. 21. After that, Paly won its last 15 matches to make school history and set the stage for this season.
Despite being the defending state champ, Winn won't approach this season any differently.
"I really do approach every season the same way," he said. "I try to make sure all the girls are doing what they need to do in the offseason to be ready physically and mentally. And, then during tryouts, I make sure I put together the team that will have the best chemistry and versatility to go as far as we can. It certainly helps to have the confidence that comes with a state title in our gym, but that won't stop us from focusing on fundamentals and teamwork in the preseason."
Winn also has been concentrating on developing depth at all positions.
"Therefore, physical conditioning and the ability to play multiple positions are paramount to our success," he said. "We had a rigorous first two weeks of conditioning. We've been experimenting with new lineups every day. The coaching staff is trying really hard to figure out lots of options to use our talented squad to keep opponents on their toes."
Winn brings a record of 164-33 into his sixth season at Paly, including a 77-6 mark over the past two seasons. The records and rankings, however, have been put aside.
"We hardly pay attention to preseason rankings," he said. "It's fun to look at, but only the postseason ranking has much weight for us."
Palo Alto was ranked No. 10 in the nation by prepvolleyball.com in 2010.
"We'll definitely recall moments from last season," acknowledged Winn, "but I'll be trying my hardest to keep them focused on the present. We certainly don't mind the expectations being set high. The expectations have to be higher.
This is arguably the most experienced squad that Paly's had when it comes to postseason play. We are going to give everything we've got in our attempt to capture the state title again.
"Make no mistake, we're not trying to repeat the success of last season. Rather, we're trying to make the most out of every chance we get this season."
The came could be said of the Paly football team, which also captured the CIF Division I Championship Bowl Game title following a shocking 15-13 upending of favored Centennial (Corona) last December.
Hansen, like Winn, was named ESPN Rise Cal-High Sports State Coach of the Year. In June, Hansen was inducted into the California Coaches Association Hall of Fame during an awards banquet in Sacramento.
All the accolades, however, have been stored in the history books. Friday's game with San Benito marks a new beginning for the Vikings.
"What you want to do with this team is focus on what happens now, not last year," Hansen said. "These kids, they have short memories."
Hansen acknowledged, however, that there is carryover from the state title.
"There's a level of practice that they have to achieve each day," Hansen said. "Everything's elevated."
Unlike the Paly volleyball team, Hansen isn't welcoming back the key offensive players from last year's team. Quarterback Christoph Bono, wide receivers Maurice Williams and Davante Adams, two-way lineman Kevin Anderson and other standouts like T.J. Braff, Will Glazier and Michael Cullen have graduated.
The new quarterback is sophomore Keller Chryst (6-3, 215), who transferred in from North Carolina when his father, Geep, was named quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers.
Returning running backs Dre Hill and B.J. Boyd will bring experience after they combined for 1,719 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. Morris Gates-Mouton also returns to the backfield where his twin brothers, juniors Justin and Jayshawn, hope to earn some playing time.
The offensive line is a veteran one with returners Spencer Drazovich, Sam Moses, Chris Ramirez, Michael Lyzwa and Tory Prati. Drazovich is the only junior in the group. Tight end Nathan Hubbard also is back, along with defensive back/wide receiver Gabe Landa. Top newcomers include tight end/linebacker Austin Braff and running back/defensive back Matt Tolbert.
Palo Alto allowed only 9.6 points per game last season while setting numerous school records, including one for most victories (14), during its 101st year of playing football.
The Vikings have won a combined 600 football and rugby games since 1897, which ranks No. 6 in state history. Football has produced 513 of them while Hansen has won 174 in his 23-year career at Paly.
Year No. 24 begins on Friday and the curtain is going up.