By Andrew Preimesberger
Palo Alto Online Sports
The Sacred Heart Prep girls' volleyball team will have a chance to play for its third CIF state championship following a 25-13, 25-11, 23-25, 25-22 victory over Harbor in the NorCal Division IV title match on Tuesday night in Atherton.
No. 1-seeded Sacred Heart improved to 33-5 following its eighth NorCal title in program history, while No. 3 Harbor ended its season at 34-7. The Gators advanced to the state finals on Saturday at Concordia University in Irvine (12:30 p.m.) against SoCal No. 1 seed Francis Parker of San Diego (36-2).
The championship matchup will pit the top two Division IV teams in the state, according to the Freeman rankings on Maxpreps. Sacred Heart Prep is No. 1 and Francis Parker is No. 2. The Gators also are ranked No. 9 overall in the state and No. 38 in the nation while Francis Parker is No. 12 in the state and No. 44 nationally.
The last time the Gators were in the state finals was in 2010, when they lost in the title match to La Jolla Country Day. Previously, SHP won state titles in 1995 and '96. Francis Parker last won the Division IV state crown in 2005 and is 6-2 all-time in state finals.
"We've been looking forward to this match the whole season," said Sonia Abuel-Saud, one of four SHP seniors who played on the 2010 state finalist team. "We never want to overlook any teams, but right now we're just so thrilled that we made it to this point and we're going to state as a team."
The Gators offense started off strong with a 8-3 run with kills from Abuel-Saud and senior Payton Smith. The senior duo combined for nine kills and rallied Sacred Heart to the Game 1 win. Both had big games; Abuel-Saud finished with 21 kills and 20 digs while Smith had 14 kills and seven blocks. Smith also was on the 2010 team, along with Ellie Shannon and Helen Gannon.
Game 2 belonged to the Gators right out of the gate. The offense was unstoppable and started off on a 16-3 with hard-hit kills from Smith and Shannon.
"The first two games were the best volleyball we've played all year," said SHP coach Damien Hardy.
Harbor made a comeback in Game 3 with senior Molly Tobin contributing nine kills for the Pirates. The Gators tried to make a late comeback but failed when a spiked ball was hit off senior Cammie Merten and gave the Pirates the 25-23 win.
Merten had a huge night with a total of 54 assists, one shy of her season high. Gannon provided 23 digs.
Sacred Heart sophomore Victoria Garrick got hot late in Game 4 when she rallied for four kills. She finished with 14 in the match plus 21 digs. The Pirates attempted a late comeback, but Hardy called a timeout to stop the rally.
"We were saying (during the timeout) that the only way we were going to win is if we win together," said Smith. "That motivated us and we pulled it out -- we were so excited."
After the timeout, Smith came through and smashed the ball past the Harbor defense to give Sacred Heart the 25-22 win.
"That's a great team over there (Harbor)," Hardy said. "I'm sure they came in wanting it as well -- maybe we just wanted it a little more tonight."
In the NorCal Division V title match at College of Marin, No. 2 seed Priory (23-9) saw its fine season end in a 25-17, 25-15, 25-11 loss to No. 1 seed and three-time defending state champion Branson (38-2). Priory junior Marine Hall-Poirier had 11 kills to pace the Panthers, the CCS Division V champs.
The match was the final one for Priory seniors Angelina Laus, Emily Tonogai, Briana Willhite, Stephanie Brugger, Catie Ross, Stephanie Swan, Clara Johnson and Liz Oliphant.