Palo Alto did finish the 2011 season ranked, by MaxPreps, as the No. 1 team in the nation. That came on the heels of the Vikings winning their second straight CIF Division I state championship to cap a remarkable two-year run that saw Palo Alto go 77-4.
While the Vikings begin their new season on Tuesday by hosting Notre Dame-Belmont in a nonleague match at 6:30 p.m., their 21-match win streak to finish the 2011 campaign is just a reminder of where Paly has been, rather than where it is going.
"The MaxPreps ranking is more of an homage to our program's history than it is a realistic assessment of where we should be placed in comparison to the best teams in the country," said Paly coach Dave Winn. "As I've always maintained, the only ranking that really matters to us is the one we give ourselves at the end of the season. That ranking is based on our effort and rate of improvement.
"You can't always control the outcomes, but we've certainly benefited from some outstanding contributions from our recently graduated seniors to give us a lot more wins than losses the past two years. But, this season is different."
The Vikings lost eight seniors off a 36-3 squad that upended Loyola Marymount in five sets in the state finale to cap the '11 season. Those seniors also helped lead the way the year before when Paly went 41-1 and captured its first-ever state crown. No team in the 100-plus years of Palo Alto High athletics ever produced such a remarkable two-year effort.
The state title gave Winn a record of 200-36 for his six years with the Vikings. He'll begin his seventh without graduated starters Melanie Wade, Maddie Kuppe, Kimmy Whitson, Caroline Martin and Jackie Koenig — mainstays on the Vikings' special two-year run. Wade, now a freshman at Washington, was the MVP of the state championship match. Martin and Kuppe were named to the All-Championship Team.
"The 2011 Paly squad is a a once-in-a-few-decades kind of team," Winn said at the conclusion of last season. "They all truly know how to leave it all out on the court and give everything for their teammates. We had 16 on the roster and even though only eight or nine saw some regular court time, they all cheered for each other no matter what. They get what it means to put team goals ahead of personal agendas. And that's why we were able to achieve great things."
But, as they say, that was then and this is now.
"We have new leadership in place, starting with our two senior captains (Shelby Knowles and Sophia Bono) and a whole host of new people on varsity who are going to need to find their place," said Winn.
Knowles and Bono are the only two seniors on the team that includes seven juniors — headed by returning outside hitter Becca Raffel.
"It's sort of like we were three years ago when Shelby was just a frosh on a team that was mostly dominated by sophs and juniors," Winn said. "It's likely that it will take us a while to settle on a consistent lineup and figure out which people can play the various roles we need. That might mean we take a few hits early on in the season, but we need to invest in learning at a much higher priority. That said, we are not sacrificing our yearly goal of trying to win league and make a push to get to the CCS finals."
One thing Winn has done to make the season goals more achievable is adjust his schedule. Gone is the prestigious Mitty Tournament, where Paly suffered two of its three losses last season. The only other loss was to St. Francis, also off the schedule. The Vikings also are bypassing Saturday's annual Milpitas Spikefest I tournament while adding nonleague matches against Leland, Castilleja and King's Academy.
"I'd say that this year will be the toughest challenge for us in my tenure at Paly in order to do that (win league and CCS), given our turnover and given the competition," Winn said. "But, my squad is hungry to make its own mark and they're working hard in practice to come up to speed."
Three other teams that advanced deep into the postseason last year are gearing up for the new season, as well.
Menlo-Atherton, which lost to Paly in the NorCal Division I finals and finished 31-7 (a school record for single-season victories) after going 14-0 in the PAL Bay Division, will open its season Tuesday at Sacred Heart Prep at 6:30 p.m. The Bears lost head coach Jen Wilson, who has been replaced by Ron Whitmill, a veteran with more than 12 years of coaching experience at both the club and college levels
Leading the way for the Bears will be 6-foot-1 senior outside hitter Ali Spindt, who is on the Under Armour High School All-American Watch List. Other key returnees include senior Mele Moimoi, Katelyn Doherty and junior Pauli King.
Sacred Heart Prep reached the the NorCal Division IV semifinals last season before falling to top-seeded Union Mine, finishing 24-8 under coach Damien Hardy. The Gators, who opened the season Thursday against Mills and will compete in the Milpitas Spikefest I on Saturday, return eight players (all seniors). Among that veteran group is 6-footer Ellie Shannon, Helen Gannon, 6-1 Payton Smith, Cammie Merten, Jojo Kurtzman and Sonia Abuel-Saud, who suffered a season-ending injury in 2011.
Matching SHP's postseason finish last season was Priory, which went 26-7 after falling to No. 1 seed Branson in the NorCal Division V semifinals. An 11-1 finish in the West Bay Athletic League (Skyline Division) earned the Panthers a move up to the WBAL Foothill Division.
Dustin Moore, who guided Priory to the CIF Division V state title in 2000, is back to coach the Panthers after an 11-year hiatus. Most of that time was spent as associate head coach of the Santa Clara University women's volleyball team.
Moore has 10 returning players, including standouts in senior middle blocker Brianna Willhite and junior outside hitter Marine Hall Poirier. Seniors Elizabeth Oliphant, Clara Johnson and Stephanie Brugger provide veteran experience while Emily Tonogai and Stephanie Swan battle for the key setter position along with junior transfer Riley Gallivan.
"I am looking forward to the challenge of competing in the Foothill Division," said Moore. "I think it will be a good experience for the girls and my hope is that it will prepare us for the postseason."
The 2012 season also marks the resumption of the sister showdowns between Castilleja coach Tracie (Hubbard) Meskell and Menlo coach Atlee Hubbard in the WBAL Foothill Division. Both teams could meet as early as Saturday, as both are entered in the Spikefest I tournament.
Castilleja went 20-15 last season and captured the CCS Division V title. The Gators return seven players, including Lucy Tashman and Hannah Hsieh — the team's only seniors. Jennifer DiSanto is back after a standout sophomore season, as is sophomore Sarah Rose.
Menlo is even better off, personnel-wise, after losing only one senior (Natalie Roy) off a team that went 24-8 and reached the CCS Division IV semifinals. Returnees include senior Emma Thygesen, Alexandra Ko; juniors Morgan Dressel, Melissa Cairo and Maddy Frappier plus sophomore Elisa Merten.
Hubbard will miss 6-3 senior Drew Edelman, who accepted a scholarship offer this summer to play basketball at USC next year.
"We talked and she made a decision to fully commit to basketball year round," Hubbard said. "Makes sense. She was injured all last season so we basically have the same team minus Natalie Roy. Our team is looking great so far and more experienced, which is nice considering our youngest player is now one sophomore (Merten) and she shows a lot of maturity at her age . . . I'm really excited to see how well we can execute the things we have worked on this preseason."
At Gunn, the Titans need to bounce back from their 1-11 season in the tough SCVAL De Anza Division despite qualifying for the CCS Division I playoffs. Coach Kevin Hwang has eight returning players, including 6-3 Lena Latour and 6-1 Meghan Mahoney, plus veteran Erica Johnston. He'll need to incorporate seven new players into the mix in hopes of challenging the top teams this season.