José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

José Luis Villegas jvillegas@sacbee.com Ali Koumelis (14) and St. Francis teammate Allie Wegener (12) celebrate their NorCal Regional victory over Granite Bay.

St. Francis rallies past Granite Bay; state next

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012 - 12:08 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

The gray brick wall is plain and is a constant reminder for the St. Francis girls volleyball team of what is expected.

A feature of that wall is, the "hole," a blank space that separates the American flag and the 2005 Division III state title banner. It's a daily reminder of the ultimate goal.

The top-seeded Troubadours are one win away from filling the "hole" after defeating visiting Granite Bay in the Division I Northern California CIF state championship 3-1 (16-25, 26-24, 25-20, 25-15) on Tuesday night.

"Every day we are looking at the hole, and now we have a chance to fill it," senior outside hitter Gabby Palmeri said. "This is the closest we have been and it is incredible."

Granite Bay (41-7) looked like a team with nothing to lose. The Grizzlies sought to avenge a 3-0 loss to St. Francis in the Sac-Joaquin Section final two weeks ago, and perhaps a loss by the same score in their season opener.

But it will be St. Francis (38-2) that will try for its second state title, and its first since 2005 in Division III.

"It's unbelievable because from the beginning of the season the girls had the hopes and the dream and the goal," coach Alynn Wright said. "But in the volleyball community that was we were going to (win). But it is a lot of pressure. It felt a lot like David and Goliath."

St. Francis was down 1-0 and trailing in the second game with Palmeri on the bench because Wright felt the senior was trying to do too much.

Dangerously close to trailing 2-0 for the second time this season, St. Francis got within 20-19. Palmeri, affectionately called "Captain Gabby" by her coach and teammates, got back on the court and rallied her team with three kills in the last four points to take the second set for a 26-24 win.

From there, St. Francis took over and showed why it was the No. 1 team by The Bee all season and the D-I top seed.

But it wasn't all that easy for Wright and her players.

"The expectation that (the players) had, the community had and just the expectations here high," Wright said.

And playing Granite Bay for a third time was no easy task, either.

"It's hard to play a good team that is playing well for a third time," Wright said. "I knew that they would come in with confidence and carefree because they didn't have that expectation."

St. Francis has a strong senior class led by Palmeri, Loni Kreun, Allie Wegener, Allison Child and Hannah Liserra – but it was the help from the underclassmen that helped seal the comeback for the deepest and arguably most talented team this season.

While Palmeri was on the bench, junior Anna Baytosh stepped in and led the rally with strong net play.

"We had to have other people step up," junior setter Ali Koumelis said. "Anna did a great job when she came in. It was hard to see Gabby on the bench."

Koumelis spent the match digging out serves by the amazing outside hitters of Maddy Deters and Nicolette Pinkney of Granite Bay, and she finished off the St. Francis win with a soft- touch kill that fell between two Grizzlies.

The point set off a celebration seven years in the making for St. Francis, which will play Marymount of Los Angeles (33-5) for the D-I state title Saturday at Concordia University in Irvine.

"I still can't believe it. I keep pinching myself to see if this is real," Palmeri said. "I keep asking people if this is real. I will find out tomorrow, I guess."

Division II – Playing in its first NorCal championship, El Camino (35-6) lost 3-0 (25-11, 25-16, 25-22) to No. 2 nationally ranked Archbishop Mitty (37-0) in San Jose.

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