By Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online
In his six years as head coach, Dave Winn has taken his Palo Alto girls' volleyball team to the CIF NorCal playoff semifinals three times. Each season the team has gained more experience.
The first trip was in 2009 when the Vikings got to the semifinals before falling to St. Francis (Sacramento), thus ending a fine 36-5 season. It was the most single-season victories in program history until 2010.
Last season, the Vikings once again reach the NorCal semifinals. They avenged the previous year's loss by beating St. Francis (Sacramento) and advancing to the program's first NorCal title match since 2000 -- and only the second in school history.
Palo Alto defeated St. Mary's (Stockton), advanced to the CIF Division I state final and won it to finish 41-1.
So, here we are again. Paly is 33-3 heading into Saturday's NorCal Division I semifinal. While the record isn't as glossy as the previous season's, the Vikings have been battle-tested like never before.
"We are a far more experienced and mature team this year than last year, heading into NorCals," said Winn. "Last year was all about 'what if' and 'could we.' This year is all about 'how we will' and 'we can.' The girls are working really hard to make sure they leave nothing to chance."
Palo Alto has been almost methodical in its approach this season. Winn knew the only way his team could improve and get back to the state finals was to play a tougher schedule. That resulted in three losses, including one to defending Division II state champ St. Francis (Mountain View).
Since that loss to the Lancers, Palo Alto has won 18 straight -- the last victory coming against Menlo-Atherton in the Central Coast Section Division I finals last Saturday at Independence High in San Jose. The Vikings' 25-19, 25-19, 25-14 victory was solid and complete, earning Paly its first-ever No. 1 seed for the NorCal playoffs.
Palo Alto received an unusual first-round bye because the Oakland section champ, Balboa, is a Division III team.
"We're taking advantage of the bye to do some preparation on lineups and defensive sets, to match up well with our potential opponents for the next two rounds," Winn explained. "I'm very happy with our situation."
Palo Alto will open defense of its NorCal title by hosting No. 4 seed San Ramon Valley (35-8) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The match originally was scheduled for 7 p.m., but changed so not to conflict with Paly's CCS Open Division football semifinal against St. Francis at San Jose City College at that time.
San Ramon Valley advanced with a 25-9, 25-6, 25-14 win over No. 5 Skyline (Oakland) in the first round. Should Palo Alto win on Saturday, it will host the NorCal title match for the first time ever on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The Vikings would face either No. 2 St. Francis (Sacramento) or No. 3 Menlo-Atherton. Paly has victories over both teams already this season. The Vikings take a No. 21 national ranking in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 list into the semifinals.