Menlo School senior outside hitter Mia Vandermeer watched her older sister Lida from the stands of the Santiago Canyon College gymnasium in Orange the last team Menlo played for the state Division IV girls volleyball championship.
This year, Lida may very well be in the stands watching Vandermeer try to turn a 2013 nightmare into a 2016 dream ending.
Senior libero Jessica Houghton lived that nightmare as a freshman on the team. She doesn't want to feel that way again, especially not with her sister and best friend Sianna Houghton playing along side and sharing in the experience.
"It was pretty terrible," Houghton said. "Not a good feeling at all. But it was a valuable lesson. You cannot lose your focus for one second."
Menlo won the first set and was ahead 24-18 in the second when Francis Parker rallied to tie the match and eventually win, 30-28, en route to a four-set victory.
The Knights have yet to win a state title in their five previous volleyball trips to the championship game. The 2013 team came closest.
"That year we thought we could make it," Houghton said. "That was a big, powerful, athletic team. This year it was more like something to look forward to but not really think about."
"At the beginning of the year we had a meeting to establish our goals," she said. "You think about state but don't really look at it. To be here now, it's amazing."
Menlo did set winning the NorCal title as a goal, which meant a trip to the state. Watching her older sister was motivation in itself.
"I looked up to them and how they played at such a level,"Vandermeer said. "It was what we wanted to achieve."
The Knights had to adjust to a new coach and having defending state champion Notre Dame-Belmont in the West Bay Athletic League.
Menlo may be the only team to have played two defending state champions and another that reached the championship game. The Tigers played in the West Catholic Athletic League last year, with Mitty.
"It's pretty inspiring and really fun to have played amazing teams," Houghton said. "It helped really push us and made us realize how hard we had to work."
Under first-year coach Marco Paglialunga, a former member of the Italian national team coaching staff, the Knights have begun to realize their potential.
"It was like a fresh pair of eyes," Vandermeer said. "He saw our potential and what we needed to work on. He has a different coaching style that is intense, supportive and passionate."
It also helps that the team is responsible, receptive and cooperative.
"There's something something here that not every team has every year at all," Houghton said.
One example is that Vandermeer and Houghton, co-captains, don't see themselves as leaders so much but as part of a leadership group that involves everyone.
"We're lucky that we're all friends and we like to be together," Vandermeer said. "That's why it works. We're all learning together."
Jessica is two years older than sister Sianna, who also plays in the front row at times. They've been mistaken for twins.
"We've always had the same mindset," Houghton said. "We're very close and at least three times a day we're saying the same thing at the same time."
They also play the same position, libero, though Sianna has adjusted quite well in the back row along with the occasional front row rotation.
"As a freshman I don't think I really knew what was happening," Houghton said. "I didn't realize what a big deal it was reaching state. I just thought it was another game. Losing that game, though, has made me want it even more this year."