With plenty of returning talent, Menlo-Atherton sets its sights on a return to the state championships
Story by KRISHNA GOMATAM | Photos by PHILLIP WALTON
There’s just something about walking into a gym during a volleyball practice. The moment you step through those double doors, something hits you. You can see it in the eyes of every player. You can hear it every time ball makes contact with the body. Every time a spike hits the hardwood, or a passer dives to the floor.
You can feel the competitive drive and the immense passion circulating throughout the room.
But if you walk into Menlo-Atherton High on a weekday at 5:30 p.m., you’ll experience something even more. You won’t just see a group of girls hitting a ball back and forth over the net, going through the motions. Not with this team. You’ll see and feel the bond of a family — a family that’s serious about winning.
“We have a great volleyball culture here,” Bears coach Fletcher Anderson said. “The girls here make up a close-knit core group. They play as a family and believe in each other, and that trust shows on the court.”
Programs often go through cycles. A few high-caliber players will come through, do their thing, then graduate and the team recedes to the medium. Menlo-Atherton has a girls volleyball team that doesn’t play by those rules. They’ve arguably been the best Division I team in their area for the past five years — and they aren’t planning on stopping that trend.
Since 2011, the Bears haven’t lost more than 10 games in a season. In the five-year span, they have failed to make it to the Central Coast Section finals just once, when they lost in the semifinals in 2013.
Furthermore, they have claimed three CCS titles in that time, including last season when they also tacked on a CIF Northern Regional championship and their first state finals appearance.
Coming into the 2016 season, Menlo-Atherton returns four of its top five standouts from the team which finished as CIF Div. I state runner-up to Redondo Union-Redondo Beach. Seniors Jacqueline DiSanto (outside hitter), Kirby Knapp (setter), Eliza Grover (opposite hitter) and Kiana Sales (outside hitter/defensive specialist) are back to comprise the Bears’ core. DiSanto, last year’s Peninsula Athletic League MVP, looks to lead the team along with two 1st-Team All-League selections a year ago in Knapp and Grover. DiSanto and Grover were two of the team’s top three hitters last year and will have to make up for the loss of second-leading hitter Leanna Collins, who graduated after last season.
So how have the Bears been able to maintain such a high level of dominance despite losing important seniors every year?
What Menlo-Atherton has built is a selfless, cohesive group of girls who all want to grow as players and people, while of course winning in the process. Anderson believes the players have done a great job of immersing themselves in this culture and passing the baton on to the next girls.
“They all want to win for each other,” said Anderson, a Los Gatos alum who played at Long Beach State and professionally overseas. “As long as we maintain that mentality going forward, I think we can be successful for many years to come.”
Clearly, this team is all business. They have been getting increasingly better over the years and are determined to solidify their greatness with a state championship. Knapp, a four-year varsity setter and a Washington University-St. Louis commit, knows it will be vital to mold the newer girls into the family and culture.
“We all want to shoot for [winning state] this year,” Knapp said. “We’re definitely hoping to win league and CCS again.”
The Bears shouldn’t have much trouble in winning the PAL Bay Division this year, and are likely a heavy favorite to win the CCS Div. I crown for a third straight year.
Anderson, Knapp and everyone else involved with the team bring up one common word when talking about the team chemistry: Family. “We’re really close, we’re like a family,” Knapp said. “Last year we were super tight and we’re hoping to get there again this year.”
While Knapp’s job as a setter is an extremely tough one, that feeling of being part of a family can put her at ease. Whether she’s setting DiSanto, Grover or any one of her teammates, Knapp is confident when she sets the ball up.
“I know I can set anyone and they will put the ball away,” the setter said. “I don’t have to force it to the same person every time.”
Grover, who led the team in solo blocks last year, is excited to see how the team shapes up. She is confident the new players will contribute greatly and help the team stay on top.
“Some of the people we lost aren’t going to be replaced, but we have some new talent in different areas,” says Grover. “It’s going to be an overall different team, but I think we can be just as good as last year.”
DiSanto and Grover combined for 511 kills last year. They will be the focal point of the offense early in the season until younger players like sophomore Alicia Letvin and freshman Marit Hoyem acclimate to varsity action.
“Kirby’s an awesome setter, so we can spread around the hits and definitely fill the void,” Grover said.
With so much success in recent years, there seems to be a sense that the team is feeling a good amount of pressure to finally win that elusive state title. Each year they have come so close, only to be stopped short of that goal. Are the players to a point of viewing anything shy of that goal a failure?
Anderson doesn’t see it that way. He knows there is only so much he and the girls can control. His players agree that they are just going to leave it all on the floor and see what happens.
“It would only be a disappointment if we did not play our volleyball,” Anderson says. “You win some, you lose some, and usually the better team wins. As long as you put your heart out on the court, that’s all you can really ask for.”
Grover disputes such pressure exists as well.
“I wouldn’t say we feel pressure. I mean, this team is so fun to be on,” the senior hitter said. “We want to win CCS again and go from there, but we don’t feel the pressure right now to win state. If we’re playing our best and it doesn’t work out the way we want it to, it won’t make the season a disappointment because we won’t feel like we could have gone any further.”
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