Local high schools look to open volleyball season on strong note


Menlo-Atherton High reached the state title match, Menlo School made it to the Northern California playoffs and Sacred Heart Prep reached the Central Coast Section semifinal round.

What can we expect as an encore from these volleyball powerhouses? Plenty. Most other local teams will be improved and all have players to watch.

The Bears (27-8 last year, 13-1 PAL Bay) return plenty of solid players, including reigning Bay Division MVP Jacqueline DiSanto, who made significant contributions to last year's run to the state championship contest.

Setter Kirby Knapp, Alexa Roumeliotis, Lauren Heller and Eliza Grover all return. Coach Fletcher Anderson had a magical first year at M-A and looks to continue things this year. The Bears have reached the CCS title match in six of the previous seven years.

Sacred Heart Prep (19-11, 5-5) lost six quality seniors from a team that reached the CCS Division IV semifinals.

The Gators do return nine players to the fold, including seniors Annie Bair, Rachel Cheung, Samara Phillips, Natalie Zimits and Alexa Thomson.

Also back are junior Cate Desler, sophomores Ally Polverari and Alexa Bartlett and Caroline Caruso.

Menlo (23-8, 9-1) has a new coach in Marco Paglialunga but plenty of familiar faces led by seniors Jessica Houghton, Mia Vandermeer, Nicole Woo and Dea Dressel.

Other top returners include Sianna Houghton, Kristen Sellers and Caroline Bradley. The Knights open Thursday night at Aragon at 6:15 p.m.

Palo Alto (24-13, 7-5) has a solid core returning in the likes of Chelsea Fan, Fiona Green, Jessica Lee, Katie Passerello and Sussana Limb.

Castilleja volleyball coach Jacqueline Heler, in her fourth season, had a legitimate excuse last season. Star outside hitter Madeline Johnson missed all but one match due to a heart condition.

Heler, whose Gators toil in the Skyline Division of the West Bay Athletic League, return everyone but Johnson this year.

“Last year was disappointing,” said Heler, a 2000 alum of Gunn.

Senior Elle Kass is the most experienced player, solidifying the libero position.

“Elle is our steadiest passer,” Heler said. “She is a big contributor on defense. Her serving has improved.”

Heler is high on sophomore outside hitter Alexis Stull.

“Alexis has been killing it,” Heler said. “She's an excellent player.”

Heler plans on playing a 6-2 offense, meaning two setters will be on the floor at the same time. Senior Ashley Hu can play setter and outside hitter. Maddie McClellan and Rebecca Mak will compete for time on the floor at setter, possibly playing at the same time.

Samantha Gerber, a senior middle blocker, has battled concussion problems the past two seasons, but should be a factor for the Gators this season. Senior Gwen Cusing will see time at outside hitter.

“Our goal is to finish in the top two in league,” Heler said.

Extra motivation for the Gators this season is that they will play in Div. V of the Central Coast Section playoffs, based on enrollment.

“Division V should be a better matchup for us than Division IV,” Heler said.

Castilleja opens the season Thursday night with a 6:45 p.m. match at Fremont High in Sunnyvale.

Praneet Nanda takes over a young Gunn High girls volleyball team full of promise and ability. Call it a clean slate, the Titans are ready to regroup and raise their level of play.

Nanda, who has been at Santa Teresa High since 2013, has high hopes for the future. Despite the recent change of scenery, with Gunn being reassigned to the El Camino Division of the SCVAL, he believes The Titans has the talent and ability to succeed.

"We're going to have a young team, but I do expect us to be promoted in our division within our league," Nanda said. "Even though we're going to be young, there will be some room for growth. However, with moving up in a division, there is going to come some confidence and a lot of momentum."

All-SCVAL De Anza second team member Emma Munch leads the Titans, who open play Friday against Hillsdale.

Rick Riebhoff is in his second year as girls volleyball coach at Woodside Priory, but it very well could be called his 10th. Riebhoff headed the volleyball program at Priory from 2004 to 2011 before taking three years off. Riebhoff replaced Dustin Moore, who took over the program at Presentation in San Jose.

“I wasn't planning on being back this soon, but I missed it,” Riebhoff said.

Amber Biddle Lindenstein is in her second year at Pinewood, having come over from Menlo School where she was the junior varsity coach. Both Riebhoff and Lindenstein are trying to rebuild their respective programs, Priory more so than Pinewood. Both teams reside in the Skyline Division of the West Bay Athletic League.

Priory has some experienced players returning in junior middle blocker Sammie Sargent, senior setter Nadia Faisal and senior outside hitter Daniela Vivanco. Sargent, daughter of Priory football coach Doug Sargent, will also play some outside hitter.

“Those are the main three, but there are some kids coming up who will be pretty good,” said Riebhoff, an alum of the long-defunct Blackford High in Santa Clara.

Priory had some internal strife last season, but Riebhoff is out to keep the girls together in 2016.

“Everything that could be a problem, was a problem,” Riebhoff said. “They had a lot of potential, but they didn't click.”

Riebhoff said the outlook is much better for his club this year.

“It's much better,” Riebhoff said. “We had more kids playing club than we've had in a long time. Things are really looking up.”

“It's going to be a lot better,” Sammie Sargent said. “Everyone on the team played club year-round. We're more jelled this year than last year. It's still a rebuilding year. We need to concentrate on getting a win.”

Crystal Springs Uplands-Hillsborough won the Skyline Division last year, but stayed down instead of moving up to the stronger Foothill Division. Mercy-Burlingame came down, while Notre Dame-Belmont joined the Foothill Division, moving from the West Catholic Athletic League.

“The Skyline Division should be wide open,” Riebhoff said. “That makes it fun.”

Lindenstein's first year consisted of some growing pains.

“I came from coaching club and at Menlo, two very competitive programs, to a smaller program,” Lindenstein said. “There was a lot of growing on both our parts. The girls have a whole different love of the game. They play because they truly love it. That's refreshing for this area.”

Pinewood has four key returners: junior setter/outside hitter Maddie Escher, senior OH/DS Alia Rubaie, senior MB Gaby Krohn and junior OH Sarah Bares.

“We're hoping to have Maddie just play outside hitter this year,” Lindenstein said.

Lindenstein has a fan in Rubaie.

“I love Amber,” Rubaie said. “Amber pushes for dedication to the sport. She focuses on skills, but she focues on attitude. That's important for an athlete, especially student-athletes. She cares a lot about our team.”

“Amber is more structured than the last coach we had,” Escher said. “She has everyone on the same page.”

Lindenstein feels her club can contend for the Skyline title.

“We're hoping to win league,” Lindenstein said. “We were on the brink of making it to postseason play last year, but we didn't have enough games.”

Priory kicks off the WBAL Skyline slate at Mercy-Burlingame on Sept. 8. Pinewood hosts The King's Academy-Sunnyvale on Sept. 13. Mercy-Burlingame is at Castilleja, while Eastside Prep is at Priory.

Elsewhere, programs like Mid-Peninsula (5-10, 5-7) look to improve with returning players Faye Bandet, Rachel Kirkwood, Hana Dvorak and Shontelle Watkins. Eastside College Prep (2-9) builds around Crystal Thomas and Vanessa Ibarra and Kehillah Jewish (2-11) looks to Sydney Goldman, Lauren Kelmer and Natalia Spritzer.

Note: Gunn was featured in Friday's print edition

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