When Menlo-Atherton senior Erica Fischer performs to expectations, she's hardly noticed on a volleyball court. It goes with the job description of libero.
Without a solid libero, the passing and setting game breaks down and it doesn't matter if you have the world's greatest hitter. The system doesn't work.
"She's the best leader on any team I've ever played for," Bears senior opposite Alicia Letvin said. "She has so much emotion for the team but she's emotionless when she plays. She's always more concerned about others. She's an amazing passer too."
Once they found their rhythm, the Bears (20-4, 10-1) were difficult to stop. About halfway through the first set, M-A found its groove and that led to a convincing 25-22, 25-22, 25-12 victory over visiting Aragon (17-5, 9-2) in a Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division showdown for first place Thursday night.
"When it comes to big matches it's all about passing and defense," M-A coach Jairo Sierra said. "We're a pretty tall team and have a lot of options but when the back row started responding, that made all the difference."
Aragon was the better team in building an 18-12 lead in the first set. It's back row play was flawless and its passing seamless.
During the ensuing timeout, Letvin, who is committed to played at UC Davis in the fall, said players were reminded to the sense of urgency needed.
"We're a great passing team and that's what we focus on in practice," Letvin said. "We just said we needed the sense of playing for something bigger than ourselves, like for each other or the school and the fans."
The Bears finished the first set on a remarkable 13-4 run, getting contributions from all over the court. Once an Aragon hitting error gave M-A a 23-22 edge, sophomore Emma Spindt stepped up with two consecutive kills to finish off the Dons.
It all started when Fischer began controlling the back row and urging on her teammates.
"Technically, she may be our best player," Sierra said. "She's so good with her defense and passing that people don't notice that part of the game. They notice the kills. Erica has been a marvel."
The second set played out like a ballet, with both teams moving, digging, passing, setting and hitting at a high level. There were five lead changes and the set was tied on seven other occasions. The biggest lead for either team was the final margin.
Spindt added nine kills in the set and the turning point came in the form of two big blocks by junior middle Marit Hoyem.
"This was the game we have been looking forward to since we lost to them," Letvin said. "We made so many errors. It was a rough match. This was our chance to take back the spot we think we deserve. This gives us a sense of confidence that we want to continue through the league, into the playoffs and, hopefully, state."
The Bears dominated the third set, sparked by Spindt's three aces and a Sawyer Jones block that put M-A ahead, 14-7. It never got any better for Aragon.
Menlo-Atherton presents a problem for opponents in that it has so many front row options and legitimate back row attackers. Spindt may be the hardest hitter but Natalie Grover, Hoyem, Letvin, Jones and Julie Kahle also displayed big swings.
"The players really wanted to get the 'W' for the entire program," Sierra said. "Now we don't want to let up."
The Bears have three matches remaining, beginning with a trip to Half Moon Bay on Tuesday for a 6:15 p.m. first serve.
Elsewhere in the PAL Bay Division, Woodside lost in five sets to host Hillsdale, 28-26, 20-25, 20-25, 25-16, 15-12, Thursday. The Wildcats (14-11, 5-6) host Carlmont at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.
Santa Clara Valley Athletic League
Palo Alto bounced back from Tuesday's loss, beating host Los Gatos, 25-16, 25-27, 25-19, 25-20, on Thursday.
Sophie Krugler had 17 kills and 23 digs to pace the Vikings (16-4, 9-1), who host Lynbrook next Thursday at 6:45 p.m.
Amelia Gibbs added 16 kills on a .538 hitting percentage and had six blocks and Trisha Razdan added 10 kills.
Rebekah Limb had 35 digs, Mallory Kuppe added 22 digs to go with six kills, Kimi Lillos had 10 digs and sophomore setter Kylie Mies accumulated 56 assists and six kills.
Palo Alto holds a 1 1/2-game lead over co-second place Los Altos and Homestead with two matches to play. The Eagles and Mustangs each have three matches remaining.
In the El Camino Division, Gunn remained tied for the division lead after knocking off host Saratoga, 25-23, 25-21, 25-13, on Thursday. The Titans (19-10, 9-1) take a seven-match winning streak into Tuesday's match with visiting Fremont at 6:45 p.m.
West Bay Athletic League
Sianna Houghton recorded 14 kills and 17 digs and Menlo beat host Mercy San Francisco, 25-22, 25-13, 25-22, on Thursday to remain unbeaten in league play.
Hanna Hoffman also collected a double-double with 26 assists and 11 digs for the Knights (19-10, 7-0), who travel to Harker for a match Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Menlo remains a game ahead of Notre Dame Belmont, which beat Harker 25-15, 25-14, 25-11, on Thursday.
Also for Menlo, Grace King had 11 kills and Sharon Nejad added nine. Riley Holland recorded 16 digs.
Sacred Heart Prep downed Mercy Burlingame, 25-17, 26-24, 25-17, at Serra High on Thursday. The Gators (11-15, 4-3) host Notre Dame Belmont at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Freshman setter Millie Muir recorded 33 assists to go with eight digs, Lindsey Johnston added 14 digs and Elena Radeff had nine kills, six blocks and three aces.
Leia Bonifacio added seven digs and two aces and Reagan Smith put down nine kills and five aces.
In the Skyline Division, Lexie Stull had 13 kills, Sarah Ranzetta and Eveliena Pasmooij each added seven kills and Castilleja topped visiting Priory, 25-11, 25-21, 25-23.
Suzzy Wang accumulated 25 digs and Jordan Amos-Grosser had 15 for the Gators (7-3 in the WBAL), who host Eastside Prep next Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Priory (4-5) visits Pinewood at 5:45 p.m.
Addie Ahlstrom, Menlo's No. 1 singles player, won her match, 6-1, 6-1 and the Knights downed host Crystal Springs Uplands, 6-1, in a West Bay Athletic League contest Thursday.
Freshman Tricia Zhang took care of business playing up at No. 2 singles, winning 6-0, 6-0 and Brynn Brady, normally a doubles player, won at No. 3 singles, 6-2, 6-1. Elisabeth Westermann made it a sweep of the singles matches with her 4-6, 6-3, 1-0 (7-3) win at No. 4.
Menlo (13-5, 6-0) hosts Castilleja (3-4 in the WBAL) at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
The Gators topped visiting Notre Dame Belmont, 6-1, at Rinconada Park. Tobey Solomon, Roxanna Scott and Mabelle Pasmooij all won their singles matches by a 6-0, 6-0 score.
In the SCVAL El Camino Division, Palo Alto lost to visiting Saratoga, 6-1. The Vikings (7-9, 3-6) dropped three matches in a tiebreaker.
Paly's Isa Cossio won her match, 6-0, 6-0, at No. 4 singles.
The Vikings host Monta Vista at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Gunn fell to Los Gatos, 220-225, at Palo Alto Hills G&CC on Thursday. Isha Mohan shot a 44 and Isabella Yu fired a 46 to lead the Titans (5-4, 4-4).
Boys water polo
Ben Rapperport made three crucial saves down the stretch, including stopping a 5-meter penalty shot, and host Palo Alto beat Los Gatos, 10-9, in a Santa Clara Valley Athletic League De Anza Division contest Thursday.
Ryan Stanley scored four goals for the Vikings (12-6, 5-5), who host Menlo-Atherton at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
The Bears beat host Serra, 8-7, in a nonleague game Thursday.
Elsewhere, Gunn lost at Los Altos, 13-6. The Titans (2-14, 1-9) host Mountain View at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday.
Girls water polo
Chesnie Cheung scored twice but host Palo Alto fell to Los Gatos, 9-5, in a SCVAL contest Thursday. The Vikings (6-13, 1-8) open the Ron Freeman Tournament on Friday with a match against Wilcox at 2 p.m.
Jessie Arons scored the only goal of the game as Palo Alto beat host Monta Vista, 1-0, in a SCVAL El Camino Division contest. The Vikings (2-10, 2-6) travel to Homestead for a 4:30 p.m. match on Tuesday.
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