A slow start put the Los Gatos High girls volleyball team back on its heels in the Central Coast Section Division I playoff championship match Nov. 4 at Palo Alto High.
The No. 2 seed Wildcats got back on track after a rough first set, but top-seed Salinas High was simply too good and pulled away from late ties in the next two sets to prevail 25-16, 25-22, 27-25.
“It took us a while to get into the match,” Los Gatos coach Nicole Ciari said. “The third set was phenomenal. We were constantly going point for point to try to get back in the match.”
Despite the loss, Los Gatos’ season extends to the CIF State tournament by virtue of making the CCS D-I title match. It received the No. 10 seed in the Northern California Division II bracket and plays at No. 7 seed Notre Dame-Belmont on Tuesday at 6pm.
Los Gatos was making its first CCS championship game appearance since 2019, which closed a four-year span of three title match showings, including a 2016 crown. More recently, Los Gatos had slipped to an 11-14 record in 2022 and a first-round CCS loss.
Under first-year coach Ciari, this squad finished section play 18-10 and came in second in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s De Anza Division behind Open Division participant Palo Alto. Last Saturday’s defeat came against a top-notch Salinas (30-5) squad led by University of Washington-commit Sabrina Moore.
“It has been an absolutely amazing season,” Ciari said. “This team has had to make a lot of adjustments. It took us a while to find our groove. It’s constantly been growth this year.”
Los Gatos was led by 6-foot-1 junior Nicole Steiner with 11 kills and fellow junior Mia Halsey with eight kills. Freshman Britt Melinauskas contributed five kills and Allison Black and Portia Zeidler each put down three kills.
Salinas, champion of the Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan Division, also fashioned a rebound season. The Cowboys set the school record for wins with 30, reached their first CCS final since 2018 and won their first title since 2009.
Salinas roared through the CCS playoffs with three sweeps. In each, they allowed 15 or less points in two of the three sets. Against Los Gatos, two of the three sets were tied in the final stages and the cumulative score of the last two sets was 52-47, showing how close and competitive the Wildcats were.
Salinas was led by Moore with 16 kills, Natalie Mendoza with seven kills and Isabella Storelli and Indira Aguilar with six kills each. Setter Cadee Guzman had 34 assists. Moore totaled 24 digs and Aguilar had 14 digs.
In terms of CIF NorCal games, Los Gatos couldn’t have asked for a better draw. Not only is the matchup a coin-flip, but the Wildcats won’t have to travel out of the Bay Area which is often what happens for NorCal games.
Notre Dame-Belmont is also coming off a CCS title game loss, in four sets to Harbor in Division IV. Salinas received the No. 4 seed in the NorCals D-II field and plays host to No. 13 seed Clovis.
“Defense wins championships and tonight proved that,” Salinas coach Chloe Goldman said. “This game could have gone either way. The win meant everything. Sabrina (Moore) reached 500 kills and 500 digs. She’s going to Washington. Without her leadership, we wouldn’t be where we are.”
Nerves hindered Los Gatos right off the bat. They fell behind in the first set by scores of 4-0, 9-3 and 14-7 and never got closer than four points. The middle attack with Zeidler was working but the outside offense was struggling and the Cowboys were rolling, as Moore delivered six early kills.
At that point, Ciari decided it was time to dance again. The Los Gatos team has a tradition of a little dance party before a match. Ciari sent her team outside the gym to do another dance party, as a mental reset to get a better performance in the second set.
“My kids have this dance party thing,” Ciari said. “We had played stressed and tight. We had to be more relaxed.”
Los Gatos played better thereafter. Ciari mixed up the lineup to aid the comeback. She moved to a 5-1 rotation with sole setter Maya Walker. Countering Salinas’ Moore continued to be a challenge. The Cowboys ran a lot of plays to enable their star to hit from different places on the court, in addition to outside. Libero Sarah Herman led the Wildcats defense that tried to minimize Moore’s attacks.
“We try to be clean and not make errors and mistakes,” Ciari said. “But Salinas was super clean. They weren’t making mistakes. And they were so scrappy, picking up nearly everything.”
The second set was a wild journey. Los Gatos rocketed out to leads of 4-0 with two Halsey kills, and 9-3 with winners from Steiner and Melinauskas. Moore and Mendoza led the Cowboys back into the match. The set was tied at 19-19 and 22-22.
At that point, Mendoza and Jennifer Rivera had back-to-back kills off overpasses and Guzman and Mendoza finished the set with a double block.
Salinas continued the momentum in the third set but the never-say-die ’Cats rallied back late with a 9-1 charge to level things at 20-20. Steiner was unstoppable with four kills, including two roll shots to beat the stacked front-row defense, and a win on a joust.
At 23-23, Los Gatos fought off two set points, both with Halsey kills. But a serving error and a wide shot put Salinas ahead 27-25 for the win. For Los Gatos, the CCS tournament included victories over Leigh in a sweep and a donnybrook win over Branham by the amazing scores of 26-24, 27-25, 28-30, 25-22.