It has been 33 years since the Palo Alto girls have shared a Central Coast Section title in soccer. It has been 35 since the Vikings have claimed one. Clearly, the program is long overdue for one or the other.
Palo Alto is now just two victories away from joining the 1982 team (co-champ) and 1980 squad (outright champ) following Saturday's 1-0 triumph over visiting Menlo-Atherton in a CCS Division I quarterfinal.
The road to the top, however, just gets bumpier from here.
Palo Alto (16-2-1) will host No. 6 seed Santa Teresa in the semifinals on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. The Saints (15-6) advanced with a 1-0 overtime win over Milpitas (17-1-3) on Saturday.
Should the Vikings move on, they likely will face rival Mountain View in the finals on March 7. The top-seeded Spartans (16-2-1), who were 1-1 against Paly this season while winning the SCVAL De Anza Division title, advanced Saturday with a 4-0 win over No. 9 Santa Clara (11-6-4).
"If we could get back to the final with Mountain View, that would be great," said Paly coach Kurt Devlin.
Isn't it a bad idea to look that far ahead?
"Nah," said Devlin, "we look ahead."
Palo Alto has all the tools to reach the finals -- experience, speed, a tough defense and junior Jacey Pederson.
"In all my four years here," said Paly senior Katie Foug, "this is the best team I've played on."
Pederson provided the lone goal against the No. 7-seeded Bears (11-6-4), weaving through the M-A defense in stoppage time in the first half and ripping a shot from about 30 yards that found the cage.
"In the first half, we played really well," said Pederson, who has 24 goals this season.
In the second half, M-A changed its offensive formation. That forced Devlin to keep the versatile Pederson anchored on defense instead of making runs up the flanks as she did in the first half.
Without having to worry about Pederson attacking, the Bears stepped up their own attack in the second half and made it interesting late in the game with some dangerous corner and free kicks. M-A managed to get off four shots to Paly's five while the referee handed out four yellow cards -- three to the Bears as the match turned physical.
Fortunately for Paly, its defense was solid and repelled the Bears to the final whistle.
Paly junior Alison Lu was particularly good on defense as she cleared numerous balls in the final minutes and helped the Vikings hold the Bears to no shots on goal in the first half.
"Our defense was good," said Devlin. "Alison Lu had her best game of the year."
Seniors Foug, Priscella Bell and Lena Chang plus sophomore Lauola Amanoni and freshman Emily Tomz joined Pederson and Lu in holding off the Bears, who got a solid effort from goalie Jaqueline Foody, one of eight M-A seniors.
Paly's defense will be put to the test by Santa Teresa senior Tegan McGrady, who is headed to Stanford in the fall. She had 18 goals heading into Saturday's match. She and Paly's Pederson, who has verbally committed to UCLA for 2016, are considered the top two players in the CCS.
In Division III quarterfinal action, 2014 co-champs Sacred Heart Prep and Menlo School both advanced following shutout victories. Top-seeded SHP (17-2-1) romped to a 10-0 victory over No. 8 Greenfield (11-6-3) at Pioneer High while No. 6 Menlo (12-4-4) blanked No. 3 Harbor (10-6-3), 2-0, at Westmont High.
Senior Alexandra Walker scored on a beautiful header from eight yards out on a cross from junior Zoe Enright 25 minutes into the first half as Menlo took a 1-0 lead. Emily Demmon, a sophomore, scored from 20 yards out on a cross shot, getting an assist from senior Leah Swig at 29 minutes of the second half.
"We had five beautiful passes right before that shot where we moved the ball nicely up the field through the team," Menlo coach Donoson FitzGerald said. "Alexandra, Zoe, Leah Swig and the entire defense played very well."
Tess Batchelder, Claire McFarland, Lizzie Lacy, Katie Keller and Schuyler Tilney-Volk paced the Knights' defense. Menlo outshot the Pirates, 11-3.
In San Jose, freshman Mia Shenk scored in the first and fourth minutes, the second on an assist from Brigid White. Junior Tierna Davidson tallied goals in the 19th and 23rd minutes with assists coming from Lauren Von Thaden and White. Sophomore Olivia Athens then scored four straight goals, between the 27th and 53rd minutes. Lindsay Johnson and Von Thaden finished off the scoring with assists from Shenk, who finished with two goals and four assists.
Sacred Heart Prep will face No. 12 King's Academy (10-7-3) in the semifinals on Wednesday at Westmont High at 4:30 p.m. King's Academy advanced with a 2-0 win over No. 4 Santa Cruz (9-7-4).
Menlo will take on No. 7 Sacred Heart Cathedral (10-8-4) at Palo Alto High at 7 p.m. SHC advanced with a 3-0 win over No. 2 Scotts Valley (10-5-5).
Top-seeded Menlo-Atherton opened its bid for a title in the CCS Division I playoffs with a 4-1 quarterfinal victory over No. 8 Alvarez (15-3-4) on Saturday at Palo Alto High.
The Bears (16-3) grabbed an early lead in the first half on a goal by Alex Gallo. After intermission, Jesus Ortega took a pass from Gallo and finished. Juan Gastelum scored unassisted before Kyle Smith wrapped up the scoring with Kyle Bryan assisting.
Menlo-Atherton advances to the semifinals Wednesday and will play No. 5 Bellarmine (14-4-4), which eliminated No. 4 seed Palo Alto, 2-0, at Milpitas High at 4:30 p.m..
Palo Alto saw its fine season come to an end in the loss to visiting Bellarmine in a CCS Division I quarterfinal match. The No. 4-seeded Vikings finished 14-4-3.
"We only made two mistakes," said Paly coach Don Briggs, who acknowledged that both led to Bellarmine's goals. "They're pretty good. They had a lot of depth; they could keep bringing players in with no drop off in talent."
Paly managed just three shots in the match, one on goal. The Vikings also were shorthanded with half of its junior keeper tandem -- Alex Bonomi -- sidelined by illness. Seniors Ed Chen, Xavier Sherer and Wesley Woo played, but all were less than full strength.
Palo Alto also loses seniors Preston Kuppe and Steven Blatman, but will return 15 players off a squad that captured the SCVAL De Anza Division championship this season.
Paly and Bellarmine last met in the CCS playoffs in 2009, when the teams played four overtimes in the Division I final and settled for a co-championship after playing to a scoreless tie.
In a Division II quarterfinal, No. 3-seeded Gunn kept its title hopes alive with a 4-2 triumph over No. 11 Mountain View at Palo Alto High. The Titans (15-4-2) got a goal from senior Alex Ruber in the third minute on an assist by Joffy Fryett before referees halted the match due to the threat of thunder/lightning in the nearby hills.
Players were ordered off the field and returned 30 minutes later to resume first-half action, during which Gunn took a 2-1 lead on Ruber's second goal -- assisted by senior Sean MacPherson. Ruber added a third in the second half (assisted by MacPherson) under cold and rainy conditions after MacPherson had scored off an assist from Jacob Scheinman.
"I thought we defended really well in the game," said MacPherson. "We knew beforehand that Mountain View had some good individuals on the attack, but our defense shut them down very well. Alex 'Conejo' Ruber's goal right before the thunder break was great. It calmed us and eradicated any nerves that we had going into the game. Overall, we played a great game, both on offense and defense!"
Gunn moves on to the semifinals on Wednesday at Valley Christian (7 p.m.) to meet No. 2 Leland (14-1-6), a winner in penalty kicks over No. 7 St. Ignatius.
In Division III, No. 8 Sacred Heart Prep pulled the upset of the tournament as Josh Lin scored on a set piece as time expired and eventually defeating No. 1 seed Pajaro Valley (15-2-4). The teams played to a 1-1 deadlock in regulation before the Gators won in penalty kicks, 5-4.
"Alex (Szeptycki) blocked one PK and they missed their last one over the goal," explained SHP coach Armando del Rio. "The team played a fighting soccer with the best effort/work rate I've ever seen. The guys really dug deep and left everything on the pitch."
SHP improved to 14-2-5 and will face No. 4 seed Santa Cruz (14-5-3) in the semifinals on Wednesday at Westmont High at 7 p.m. The Cardinal ousted No. 5 Burlingame, 3-1.
"It was a very clean and tightly contested game by both teams," said del Rio. "I feel we were the aggressors from the start and played most of the first half in their half. They had three chances in the first half and converted one of them, while we created great chances but didn't convert.
"In the second half, it was more even-sided, but we continued to win the midfield. Alex was again our keeper because Zach (Haire) is out with a bad virus. Alex made a key save to keep us down only one."