When the Los Gatos High girls volleyball team dropped a four-set match to Salinas High a mere two weeks ago, the Wildcats had little idea they would get a golden opportunity to avenge the defeat on a bigger stage.
That’s exactly the situation No. 2 seed Los Gatos finds itself in after a riveting four-set win over No. 3 Branham High on Thursday in a Central Coast Section Division I playoff semifinal. The Wildcats (18-9) play top-seed Salinas High (29-5) in the championship match on Saturday at 3pm at Palo Alto High.
“I definitely think it [Salinas match] was a wakeup call for us because they’re a non-league team and we wouldn’t see them otherwise,” Wildcats coach Nicole Ciari said moments after the team’s quarterfinal-round win over Leigh High on Tuesday. “We played in a really tough league, but being able to be at the top of our league leaves a little more to be desired. You want to play competitive teams [outside of league as well] so having Salinas toward the end [of the regular-season] gave us a taste of what it was going to be like to play in playoffs. They are an amazing team, they’re seeded first with every right, so it was a good moment for us to be like, ‘OK, this is where we need to be playing in order to make it through the playoffs.’”
Salinas is a formidable group and the Wildcats will have their hands full trying to slow down Sabrina Moore, who registered 23 kills to just seven errors on 51 attempts in the teams’ first meeting. Izabella Storelli also gave Los Gatos fits, finishing with nine kills on an excellent .350 hitting percentage.
However, the Wildcats are playing their best volleyball of the season and ride into the final on the heels of a clutch performance vs. Branham.
Game scores were 26-24, 27-25, 28-30, 25-22. Against Leigh, game scores were 25-17, 25-22, 25-19. The latter performance was rather clinical, as Los Gatos played one of its smoothest matches of the season in making a quality opponent look rather average.
“It was a very pretty game,” Ciari said. “We had the luxury of not playing [in the opening round] so we knew going into this what we were going to need to accomplish. We really emphasized that playoffs were going to be a battle no matter who was on the other side. The hard work we’ve been putting in practice really showed up in the match and it was a really neat thing to watch them tonight [vs. Leigh].”
Junior setter Maya Walker was a maestro in her decision-making and displayed a Midas touch in her passing and sets in the Leigh contest. Walker was terrific in her ball distribution to Mia Halsey and Nicole Steiner on the outside and with quick sets to Allison Black and Portia Zeidler in the middle.
With Walker making sound decisions, and Halsey and Steiner’s ability to hammer from the outside and Black and Zeidler coming fast in the middle, it makes Los Gatos tough to defend.
“Maya was amazing,” Ciari said. “We have worked so hard on setting choices and she is such a talented setter on her own. Just building up her IQ and diversifying our offense has been a huge thing she’s been working on, and she did an amazing job with that.”
Los Gatos totaled 44 digs to just 32 errors, a testament to its clean play. Walker also showed her stellar defensive skills in the Branham match with 12 digs. Halsey and Steiner combined for 27 kills in just three sets vs. Leigh, and freshman Britt Melinauskas had five.
Steiner and Halsey are also among the team leaders in digs and proven to be solid on serve-receive.
Libero Sarah Herman had eight digs in the Branham match, Black tallied nine kills and Zeidler had six kills. Los Gatos hasn’t won a CCS championship since 2016, though it did win a CIF NorCal Regional Division II title in 2019.