With a schedule this tough, the Central Coast Section playoffs should feel like a respite for the Homestead High girls volleyball team.
After participating in the most formidable tournament in the country to cap a challenging slate of non-league matches, the Mustangs this week begin play in the strongest public-school league in the county. The SCVAL De Anza Division sent all seven of its teams to the playoffs last season.
But Homestead is the only school in the De Anza big enough to play in the CCS Division I playoffs (divisions are determined by school population), an advantage for a team aspiring to win back-to-back section championships and get all the way to the state final.
These goals would be more difficult to attain in Division II, in which the De Anza's other top teams and West Catholic Athletic League powers Mitty, St. Francis and Presentation will be seeded.
"We have a good shot at winning CCS again and we hope to make a run at state," said Homestead coach Matt Hoffman, who has eight Los Altos residents among his 14 players. "We were one game away (from the state final) last year. But there's going to be a good battle in league; there are a lot of good teams. I think we're one of the top four teams – along with Mountain View, Los Gatos and Palo Alto – and any of us can win the league."
The Mustangs finished a close second to Palo Alto last year, and Hoffman has good reason to believe his girls can claim the crown this season.
"Our experience may give us an edge," he said of a team that returns seven players, "and so should our preseason schedule."
Opening the season with nine consecutive wins in Reno to capture the High Sierra Invitational, Homestead returned to California to face four consecutive teams that made the CCS playoffs a year ago. The Mustangs beat three of them (Woodside, San Benito and Leland) and lost in four games to Menlo. Homestead went into last weekend's Durango Classic in Las Vegas – which Hoffman called "the toughest tournament in the country, with six state champions" – at 12-1.
"This is my second year coaching the girls and I've coached the boys for four years, and we've had some good teams, but this is the best start I've had," Hoffman said. "I'm pleased with how well we're playing together this early in the season. I didn't think we'd click until later in the season."
None of the Mustangs are clicking better than outside hitters Katherine "Kat" Fischer and Tori Carroll, Los Altos residents who earned all-league honors last year.
Fischer, a senior who has secured a scholarship to the University of Oregon, is averaging 5.4 kills per game – up from last year's 4.4 mark. The 5-foot-10 Fischer had match-high 14 kills in last week's sweep of Leland.
"Kat sets the bar at a high level with her play and everyone follows," Hoffman said. "She's one of the top three or four hitters in CCS."
Carroll is being asked to play a bigger role than last season, and the coach said the 5-10 junior is rising to the task. Her kill-per-game average has climbed from 2.1 to 3, and she notched a match-best 15 kills in Homestead's sweep of San Benito last week.
"She's stepping up more and is becoming more of an impact, go-to player," Hoffman said. "She's more of a threat and that makes the team less one-dimensional. Teams have to worry about Kat and Tori now."
All-leaguer Melissa Cheng and fellow senior Nicole Radish share the setting duties in the Mustangs' 6-2 offense.
"We ask a lot of them – to hit, pass and set – and they've really responded well to everything we ask them to do," Hoffman said. "They're playing well and making great sets."
The biggest change for the Mustangs this season has been at middle blocker. Both of last year's starters have graduated, allowing senior Colleen Fitzgerald and sophomore Cathy Stolitzka to step into the lineup. Both stand 5-10.
"They're doing everything we ask of them and we'll probably need more from them as the season goes on," Hoffman said.
Fitzgerald, a Los Altos resident, "gained a lot of experience in practice against our starters last year and is playing with a lot more confidence," the coach said. The hard-hitting Stolitzka, a transfer from St. Francis, "is doing well. At times we forget she's a sophomore; she doesn't always play like one," Hoffman said.
Senior Liz Case starts at libero and "is doing a good job in that role," the coach said. Junior Katie Phan of Los Altos also sees court time as a defensive specialist.
Homestead was scheduled to host Los Altos Tuesday to open league and visit Saratoga at 6:45 p.m. Thursday.