They gave away some easy points, yet when it came down to winning the momentum swinging points, the Menlo girls' volleyball team put it all together.
Junior Ashley Dreyer recorded 13 kills, Grace Enright produced a clutch service ace, and the top-seeded Knights rallied to beat visiting Branson, 26-24, 25-16, 22-25, 26-24, Tuesday to reach the Northern California regional finals, one win away from reaching the state Division IV finals.
Menlo (23-8) hosts CCS champion Monte Vista Christian-Watsonville at 3 p.m. Saturday to determine which school advances to the California state championship on Dec. 3.
“I had no idea this was going to happen,” Menlo senior middle blocker Dea Dressel said. “I want this team to get their own spot (banner) on the wall so we can come back and see it. We have the talent and we're excited about the next one.”
The Mustangs (33-5) topped visiting Sacred Heart Prep, 25-21, 25-18, 25-27, 25-16, in a rematch of the CCS Division IV championship contest. The Gators (26-12) completed a successful season that saw them advance deep into the postseason and record their most wins in a year since the state championship team of 2012.
Junior Cate Desler led SHP with 15 kills. Senior Natalie Zimits had nine kills and five blocks and fellow senior Sammy Phillips added eight kills and six blocks.
Haley Martella recorded 28 assists, Caroline Caruso had 16 digs and Ally Polverari contributed eight kills.
Menlo, which finished tied for second with Sacred Heart Prep in the tough WBAL Foothill Division, opened CCS play with a first-round loss to nationally-ranked Mitty in the Open Division before being reseeded into the NorCals.
The Knights felt that setback prepared them for the remainder of their postseason experience. Winning two close sets in the match showed they were ready.
“In the third set I think we just lost ourselves as a team a little bit,” Dressel said. “We forgot how we're supposed to play. In the fourth set, we brought it all back and it took all of us working together to do so. We knew we could do it, we just needed to try harder.”
Paglialunga has said all season this team is capable of doing great things and he pointed to the second set as proof. That's the set Menlo did not commit a serving or passing error. The Knights played smoothly and in sync.
“They deserve this one,” said Paglialunga, who acknowledged he needed to learn as much as he could about the Mustangs. “You have to enjoy playing this game.”
Menlo was its own worst enemy in the early going, sending five serves out of bounds to keep the Bulls in the first set.
The Knights squandered three set points before Grace King, who had eight kills on the night, drilled home a winner to make it 25-24. A Branson hitting error later and Menlo held the early advantage.
The way the Knights took command of the second set made it seem the rest of the match was academic.
The Bulls led the entire way in the third set though, taking advantage of five Menlo service errors and grabbing the momentum.
Branson went up, 21-15, and the Knights showed some spark to get within 23-22 before the Bulls finished it.
The fourth set felt more like a tennis match with the way things were shifting back and forth. Branson inched ahead at 23-19 and that's when Dressel, fortified after a Mia Vandermeer smash hit, said she felt a shift.
“It felt like the second set, like we were playing as one,” Dressel said. “It felt like we were going to win.”
There was still the matter of erasing the deficit and Enright's ace that tied the set at 23 was about as clutch as they come.
“It was important to maintain our defense and come back with our offense,” Dressel said.
Vandermeer finished with eight kills and five blocks, Selina Xu added nine kills and a pair of aces. Kristin Sellers added three aces, Sianna Houghton did a little bit of everything and team captain Jessica Houghton did enough digging to strike oil.