Palo Alto High School Girls Volleyball wins state
Every athlete has experienced the feeling of despair when looking up at a scoreboard only to see a slim chance at victory. After hours of practice, the last thing a player wants is to see their hard work overshadowed by another team’s talent. But at a certain point, being an underdog is not all about athletes suddenly amping up their physical abilities or trying to fix past mistakes. It’s about the team’s belief in one another, in the game their playing and the point they’re about to win.
For the Palo Alto High School varsity volleyball team, this moment came in the CIF Division I State Championship match against Marymount High School on Dec. 3 at Concordia University in Irvine. The Lady Vikes were trailing by six points in the fifth set. Not only was Paly predicted to lose to the #1 team in the nation, ranked by Maxpreps.com, they faced a score that is nearly impossible to overcome in any volleyball match.
“[Paly head coach] Dave [Winn] told us [after the game] that if you’re up at game point and winning by six in the fifth set of a match, you should win 99% of the time,” libero Ashley Shin (‘12) said.
There was no longer room for Lady Vike errors.
“When you’re down by that much, at that point you basically have to play flawlessly,” Shin said. “It’s really hard to do because volleyball is a game of mistakes. But, it’s also a chance for redemption.”
With this new pressure, the team also had to cope with the booming Marymount fans, who packed over two-thirds of the local gym just an hour away from their home court.
“It was so hard. They had the stands absolutely packed,” Paly outside hitter Maddie Kuppe (‘12) said. “A few of them directly yelled at me and told me to ‘sit down’. We were getting absolutely harassed, and they were just thunderous. It was so hard to ignore but we just had to convince ourselves that they were cheering for us.”
And so, with the majority of the gym chanting ‘Let’s go Sailors!’, Kuppe only heard ‘Let’s go Vikings!’.
Earlier, in the first two sets, Paly was on point. To start off her final chapter of Paly volleyball, middle blocker Melanie Wade (‘12) smacked a kill to earn the first point. After Kuppe wrapped up a first set victory for Paly with an ace 25-17, the team was en route to a repeat of last season. In the second set Marymount came out to prove they were not a team to be trifled with, forcing Paly players to take on versatile roles.
“Everyone had to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Wade said.
Though Marymount put up a fight, the Lady Vikes squeaked by 25-23. But soon, the momentum began to shift. With tight calls on Whitson’s doubles and a substitution error, Paly found itself struggling in the third and fourth game.
“It was really frustrating,” Whitson said. “It always depends on who the ref is and in this game they were calling it really tight. I made a couple of mistakes but my team backed me up and helped me move on.”
After dropping the third and fourth game to Marymount, Paly had 15 points left of its 2011 season. Before they knew it, Marymount was only two points away from winning, leading 13-7 in the fifth set. But Paly believed and slowly, the points came.
(10:10 p.m.) Whitson’s reliable hands falter in the eyes of the referee and a double is called off the shaky set. The Lady Vikes trail 13-7.
Marymount outside hitter Yaasmeen Bedart-Ghani (‘15) tumbles into the net in an effort to hit the ball over. The violation puts the score at 13-8, narrowing the gap to five points.
After Kuppe hits a topspin serve short middle that is shakily picked up by Marymount libero Jamie Marvil (‘13), the Sailors did not set up their hitting offense correctly. Marymount middle blocker Ashlie Williams (‘13) hits a deep kill two feet out from Paly’s court. 13-9.
(10:11) On the next play, Bedart-Ghani pounds a shot to Kuppe down the line, which is barely scraped up by Paly libero Shelby Knowles (‘13). After back-and-forth play, Paly opposite hitter Caroline Martin (‘12) hammers the ball into Bedart-Ghani’s fingers, who attempted to hault the play. With a split-second decision, Martin pulls away her digging platform, and the ball drops only a few inches out of bounds. 13-10. Time out Sailors.
Throughout the match, the Marymount fans didn’t let up their cheers at Paly players and coaches.
“During time outs they would say things like ‘Coach! Take your shirt off’ and ‘Hey, you’re so sexy coach,’” Shin said. “When I went to look for my warm-up shirt after the game, where the student fans had been standing, it was ripped down the back.”
(10:13 p.m.) After the timeout, Paly comes out with a strong defensive mentality. When Marymount outside hitter Manon Greskovics-Fuller (‘12) attempts a cross-court shot, Martin digs it up, and the Lady Vikes’ game is once again revived. Although Bedart-Ghani tries to shake up Paly’s defense with an attempted hit, Martin and Paly middle blocker Jackie Koenig (‘12) put up a wall on the net to stop it. 13-11. After already recovering four points, the Lady Vikes continued to climb the ladder to victory.
(10:14 p.m.) Kuppe’s serve. Walking to the end of the court, the roaring gym was silenced for a moment. While everyone’ nerves were at a peak, Kuppe stayed calm and collected.
“When I realized that I was going to be the next server I panicked, but then I thought about it and I was like ‘You know what? We have been here before,’” Kuppe said. “I would rather have myself back there than someone else in that kind of pressure. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone else but I need to deal with it.”
In a déjà vu moment from the 2010 season in which Kuppe served back-to-back aces to capture the State title, the ball not only flew in, but was high and short, perfectly placed. With topspin, the ball floated over the net before driving into the floor just beyond the reach of MarvilI. 13-12.
The Sailor fans no longer cheered with as much enthusiasm, and the jeers from the Marymount student section began to abate. For Kuppe and everyone else in green and white, despair turned to hope. Winn felt that the game was finally in his teams’ control.
“Maddie under pressure is the best I have seen, ever,” Winn said. “Two years in a row, just a solid stud behind the line. Everyone felt once they saw her back there they were like ‘Oh yeah, this is where we are supposed to be.”
With a shift in the momentum and a revived confidence, Paly began playing with the attitude they all season, ready to take one point at a time.
(10:15 p.m.) After Kuppe serves yet another ball in, middle blocker Melanie Wade (‘12) hits a short cross-court shot that shanked off of Bedart-Ghani’s right arm. The score is tied at 13. Wade and Greskovics-Fuller get kills for their respective teams, the result is another tie at 14.
(10:16 p.m.) After Marymount gained serving control, the Sailors served straight into the net. 15-14 Paly. Next, Paly’s block by Wade and Whitson falls just out of bounds. Score tied at 15. Each team needs two more points to win.
(10:17 p.m.) Wade hits a kill deep right corner shot to put Paly up 16-15. Only one more point to victory. After Martin successfully served the ball to Marymount, Bedart-Ghani hits a cross-court kill wide left to finish the match.
The Lady Vikes had done it. With a score of 17-15 in a nail-biting fifth set, Paly won its second consecutive State title, soaring to number one in the nation on Maxpreps.com.
“It’s all about the day of the competition,” Kuppe said. “I think we did have more heart, at least when it mattered. Although I can’t guarantee that we would beat them any other day, it’s just about the day of the competition.”
After the match, Winn was still in shock of the victory, but proud of his team’s mentality throughout the fifth set.
“They believe in each other, and at the end of the day all the things we are talking about strategy-wise don’t mean squat unless you believe,” Winn said.
No one would have known looking at the 2005-2006 Paly volleyball team under former head coach Dave Huan that in just six short years the program would go on to become the best in the country.
After being let go as coach, Huan was replaced by Winn, who had been recently fired from Los Altos High School. At the time Winn debated whether he would continue coaching all together, but soon learned of the available position at Paly. At Los Altos, parents had launched a campaign to oust Winn, after what they believed to be a sub-par season.
“It was a typical sad story where we weren’t winning as much and a couple of parents who were a little gripey, sort of launched a campaign to get me fired.”
Although Winn had faced difficulties at his previous school, he gave coaching one last chance and put his faith in the Paly volleyball program. Hansen had only two expectations of Winn when he hired him: “One: ‘I want the girls to be better than when they started’ and two; ‘I don’t want to hear any complaining from any parents,’” Winn said.
In his first year on the job, Winn improved the team’s record from 19-13 overall, 5-7 in league to 27-9 overall and 9-3 in league.
“I set expectations of the girls from the very beginning of what I was looking for in every position,” Winn said.
Under Winn’s guidance and leadership, the team slowly climbed in the rankings. In just four years the Lady Vikes had moved from being 76th in the nation to occupying the first place spot.
“We don’t focus on the ranking at all,” Winn said. “The only ranking that matters is the one at the end of the season: did you win it all or not.”
Each point of the battle Paly fights has always been key for the team. Kuppe and Wade joined the squad in 2007. This was the first time the team had seen freshmen on the roster since the 2004-2005 season, when Hillary Ford (‘08) stepped onto the court. The team had success throughout the season, before falling in three straight sets in the Division II CCS Semifinal match against Archbishop Mitty High School, finishing 33-7 overall.
“[Kuppe and Wade] came in with the physical gifts of being tall and strong, more so than most freshmen,” Winn said. “They were not intimidated by the speed of play at the varsity level.”
Before they knew it, the 2009-2010 season was upon them, and five new sophomores saw their names added to the varsity roster. Whitson, Martin, Koenig, Shin and setter Ally Kron (‘12) strengthened the already talented squad, pushing them one match further, despite falling once more to the Monarchs, this time in CCS finals.
“When I’m shown the raw statistics from every season, it’s fascinating because it hasn’t felt like the team has gotten any better,” Kuppe said. “It’s just that I and the other players in my year have just grown up and matured.”
The progress Kuppe saw in herself and in her teammates only continued the longer they played together on the court. In 2010, the trust they had built and the skills they had honed, paid off.
A nearly perfect season and an unblemished performance in the CCS playoffs and Norcal tournament all capped off the team’s first ever State title.The expectations this team had motivated them to move further with each season.
“I always thought we could do it again, but I never really thought we could do it again,” Whitson said. “It was all about believing and that’s what it was last year too.”
This year, Paly faced the difficulties of losing key leadership roles on the team. The 2010 team graduated outside hitter Trina Ohms (’11) and libero Megan Coleman (’11), who went on to play at the University of Pennsylvania and Claremont McKenna college respectively.
“They seemed so old and so wise and perfect in every way,” Kuppe said [of the upperclassmen]. “As a senior on any sports team, you want to strive to be the best example possible.”
In 2011, Paly was now without two of their six State-winning starters. However, the other four, Whitson, Wade, Kuppe and Martin remained confident.
“This year all of us really stepped up, it was a complete team effort filling in those positions,” Martin said. “We don’t just have one player that you can always count on, we have to trust everyone.”
A year later, the question of a repeat season became inevitable in the Paly community. This season though, Paly lost three games early on; the Lady Vikes fell to Santa Barbara (18-11), Dos Pueblos (22-8) and Saint Francis (32-9) all in preseason. While these three losses were the only ones of the season, the Lady Vikes could not see the future.
“It opened our eyes to our weaknesses,” Koenig said. “After our loss to Saint Francis, Dave basically said ‘no more losing’, and told us the ‘one-point-at-a-time’ goal. If we didn’t lose, he would’ve never told us that goal. It made us mentally tougher.”
This psychological strength allowed the Lady Vikes to show that they were not the 2010 team and they weren’t invincible.
“We finally weren’t focused on not losing, and instead we could focus on winning,” Kuppe said. “Because in reality, in sports those are two very different mindsets.”
From then on, Paly entered each game with a new attitude, to believe without becoming overconfident. This helped them all the way to the final match of the season.
“When we had to do it on the bigger stage, it’s not like it was scary,” Winn said. “We had already been there. I could not have asked for a better way for this season to roll out. It proved that all you have to do is believe.”
This season, the Lady Vikes will graduate eight seniors, half of the State-winning roster. While four of the players are not playing volleyball at the competitive level next year, three are going on to play Division I; Kuppe for the University of Connecticut, Whitson for the University of the Pacific and Wade for the University of Washington. Martin will play Division III at Connecticut College. All four of them look forward to their upcoming freshman years.
“College volleyball is going to be a completely different level, but that’s what we all want,” Wade said.
As for beyond college, Wade doesn’t know what is in store for her. Similar to her ‘one-point-at-a-time’ mentality on the court, she carries the same attitude towards her volleyball career.
“One of my biggest fears is getting tired of volleyball, but right now I’m just looking forward to next year,” Wade said.
Similar to Wade, Martin will remember experiences she had with her teammates over the years.
“Paly volleyball has been like a second family to me, I’m going to miss it incredibly,” Martin said. “But I’m just excited to start a new family at Connecticut and start volleyball career”
Although the seniors will leave Paly, they won’t soon forget what they accomplished.
“They will be able to talk about their high school careers being the most amazing of any public school,” Winn said.
In sports, winning and losing are usually determined by athletic talent. The better team is supposed to come out on top. In the Concordia gym, Marymount seemed destined to win. They had made a comeback against Paly’s first two tough sets of the match. With the advantage of playing at a local gym, the Sailors were hungry to win the State title for the seventh time in school’s history. But in some situations, the team with the most heart can come back from a deficit that most teams would fall to. In ordinary setbacks, believing can turn a loss into a victory. And that’s exactly what the Lady Vikes have done for the second year in a row.