This is unfamiliar territory for the Gunn girls volleyball team and there's no plans for slowing down.
"Improvise, improvise, improvise; that's what we've been doing all year," Gunn coach Baiba Zake McGibben said after the Titans surprising 25-19, 25-20, 25-20 Central Coast Section Division I semifinal victory over visiting Mountain View on Thursday night. "We've had a great season and believe it or not, we're still in it. It's a little bit of a shock."
The sixth-seeded Titans (19-17), playing in their first CCS semifinal since 1998, advance to play SCVAL rival and top-seeded Los Gatos in Saturday's final at 3 p.m. at Gunn.
It's Gunn first appearance in a CCS title match since 1980. The Titans own one overall CCS title (1975) and have won a few regional titles, all before 1980.
No one could have predicted Gunn would wind up in this situation. After winning the SCVAL El Camino Division title last year, the Titans were promoted to the De Anza Division, where the competition was a notch above.
"I think it was a mental thing the whole way through," Gunn senior Ana DuBois said. "We had never been in the same league with Palo Alto. Once we beat Woodside in our first game, we started thinking we might be better that we thought."
Still, there seemed to be insurmountable obstacles, like an injury that kept leading scorer Odeya Russo in the back row for a few matches or that the Titans don't have a true middle blocker and can appear disjointed at times.
"The girls really picked up and started playing as a team," said McGibben. Our passing and defense was amazing and not many balls fell to the court. It took teamwork and communication."
The Titans rallied from behind in each of the first two sets, fending off counter punches from the Spartans (28-8) and minimizing mistakes.
"I remember the first practice and looking around and thinking we had so much to work on," Russo said. "By the end of the season, we had adjusted and were playing like a team."
Los Gatos (16-8) and Mountain View each went 8-4 in the SCVAL, finishing behind league champion Palo Alto. Gunn lost in five sets at Los Gatos and were swept at home.
"It's a matter of executing," DuBois said. "We were so close at times but then let ourselves down. Right now I think we're letting ourselves see we can win. We believe we can win."
Russo (18 kills, 11 digs, 4 aces), DuBois (33 assists) and fellow seniors Jessica Carter (2 blocks), Rachel Grant (18 kills) and Livia Bednarz (13 digs), all of whom made significant contributions against the Spartans, have seen it all, from an 8-18 season two years ago to a 25-13 season last year.
They've been through a series of coaching changes and different systems and for the first time in 39 years, will be part of a Gunn team that plays for a championship.
Micaela Leong added 12 digs for the Titans.
Sacred Heart Prep is returning to the CCS Division IV title match after a year's absence and will meet West Bay Athletic League rival Harker on Saturday at Palo Alto, with a starting time of 5:30 p.m.
Also at Paly, Burlingame and Aptos meet for the Division III title at 12:30 p.m. Nueva and Mt. Madonna meet in the Division V title at 3 p.m. Mt. Madonna topped Castilleja 25-14, 25-19, 21-25, 25-19 to advance.
The top-seeded Gators took care of Carmel 25-23, 25-18, 25-18 on Thursday at Notre Dame Belmont as Santa Clara-bound Elena Radeff recorded 13 kills and had nine digs. Reagan Smith, who is headed to Brown in the fall, added seven kills.
Sophomore Millie Muir, a Duke commit, had 38 assists, 13 digs, four blocks and four kills. Evelyn Sutton added nine digs.
Sacred Heart Prep turned the tide after falling behind 23-20 in the first set and rallying for the victory. The Gators never trailed again.
No. 6 Woodside (17-19) had its season end in the semifinals of CCS Division II, losing to No. 2 Aragon, 25-20, 25-23, 25-16. Senior Sarah Strus had 10 kills on .385 hitting to lead the Wildcats.
Senior Molly Buddie had 23 assists and 10 digs, Krista Opp recorded 19 digs, Elena Campbell had 10 and Lena McDonough added 11.