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California volleyball: Unbeaten, fifth-ranked Saint Francis ready to rewrite own history

Lancers are Northern California's top team currently while riding 25-match win streak
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The history books show the girls volleyball glory days of Saint Francis-Mountain View arrived before any current players were even born.  

From 1990 through 2003, the Lancers appeared in 11 state title contests and won eight of them. 

Dave Gambelin coached St. Francis to six of those championships and Kim Oden won the last two. Jessica Gysin, Diane Copenhagen and Christa Conom were among the star players.

Saint Francis has had some strong teams since 2003 but only one state championship appearance, a 2010 title, and has not finished higher than third in the West Catholic Athletic League in more than a decade. 

However, this season, the Lancers are rekindling the glory, as they have rolled to a 25-0 record while dropping just a total of three sets.

“It’s the kids,” coach Lake Merchen said. “They’re young but experienced. Obviously they are very talented. We’ve got some big flyers. The thing is their drive.”

St. Francis is led up front by two powerful junior outsides in Erin Curtis and Taylor Williams.

Curtis averages 4.3 kills per set and Williams adds 4.0 kills per set with a .339 attack percentage. Both elevate and turn on a ball with a fast arm swing to terminate.

“We have a combination of offense and defense,” Curtis said. “We are steady all around and not vulnerable anywhere.”

Senior setter Havannah Hoeft, bound for Loyola Marymount University, runs the offense and junior libero Whitney Wallace leads the defense. Hoeft also finds attack success with Sammy Franco outside and Faith Crouch and Sacha Touma in the middle.

“We are really connected, on and off the court,” Hoeft said. “I have a lot of weapons to set back and front. Our defense is great. Whitney Wallace is great. She sees spots that are open and gets there.”

The unbeaten Lancers have been tested. 

They have won three tournaments — Spikefest, Santa Barbara and Stockton — and defeated several NorCal powers, including Sacred Heart Prep-Atherton, Salinas, Archbishop Mitty-San Jose (three times), Branson-Ross, Redwood-Larkspur twice, Monte Vista-Danville and Clovis North-Fresno. 

They've also knocked over Southern California squads Valencia, Newport Harbor-Newport Beach and San Clemente. 

Lancers after winning Spikefest tournament. Courtesy: St. Francis Athletics.

Lancers after winning Spikefest tournament. Courtesy: St. Francis Athletics.

“We have a lot of experience,” Hoeft said. “A lot of our players played last year. Last year, we started spreading out the offense and opening up the opponent defense.”

St. Francis finished third in the WCAL in 2021 but blossomed late. 

The Lancers upset top-seeded Marin Catholic-Kentfield in the CIF NorCal Open Division playoffs and swept Menlo School-Atherton before falling to Mitty in the final. 

Star lefty Madison Pietsch graduated and headed to USC but the Lancers have not missed a beat.

“I feel every season is a puzzle,” Merchen said. “For us last year, it took longer to see where the process would take us. Once we cracked the code, we had success. We had to deal with some adversity and get rid of distractions and injuries.”

Merchen coached a seventh-seeded 2019 Aptos team to three road victories and a NorCal title and then a CIF Division IV crown by beating Nordhoff-Ojai. He was an assistant coach at Saint Francis last season and took over as co-coach late in the year when Michael Rubin stepped aside. 

Marchen got the full-time job during the off-season.

It was quite a luxury to have players as talented as Curtis and Hoeft. 

“Erin just has an eye for the game,” Merchen said. “She jumps big, hits hard, passes well and understands how to score. Some kids get away with athleticism. She has that and is a really smart kid and intelligent and that shows up on the court. 

"Havannah is our rock. She puts the ball in the perfect spot every time. She is a true leader. She is the one out there calming people down.”

Williams recently committed verbally to Duke. Merchen cited her performance in last year’s NorCal playoffs as a coming-out party.

“Taylor is an incredible volleyball player now,” Merchen said. “In the Marin Catholic game, we said we will trust you in the big moment and she showed us.”

Saint Francis' dry spell is in fact quite a drought. It coincides with the rise of Mitty and coach Bret Almazan-Cezar, as the Monarchs appeared in 13 title contests in 15 years between 2003 and 2017.

Sacred Heart Cathedral-San Francisco, St. Ignatius-San Francisco and others have had spells of WCAL success. Saint Francis has been a mixed bag since a tie for second in 2011 and a league title in that state championship year of 2010, with a team featuring Chloe Lott, Taylor Formico and Taylor Deaton. 

This year’s team is 9-0 in WCAL action and on track for the league crown.

Winning the NorCal title would get the Lancers back to the state championship. Yet there are WCAL opponents, Central Coast Section contenders and North Coast Section and Sac-Joaquin Section teams that are solid and in the mix.

But if they get to Santiago Canyon College in Orange next month, can the Lancers compete at the state level?

“A bunch of the Southern California teams have beach players and they play really good defense,” Curtis said. “The first set we lost this year was to San Clemente. They pushed us. It was a good lesson.”

The Lancers overcame the Tritons 17-25, 25-21, 25-22, 25-21. That San Clemente team has beaten powerhouses Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth, Palos Verdes-Palos Verdes Estates and Mater Dei-Santa Ana this season.

“The players have been playing with a chip on their shoulder,” Merchen said. “We don’t expect it to be handed to us. Our players have seen the players from Southern California in club volleyball. It’s not an imaginary beast. They take pride in their school and where they are from. We look forward to seeing how far we can take it.”

Curtis moved from North Carolina to the Bay Area in eighth grade. Hoeft is a local transfer.

They and their teammates may not know of Saint. Francis’ old successes but they are making some history on their own.

“From what I know, the history is we have had some really good teams but fell short at the end,” said Merchen, who is from the Fresno area. “Our goal is to play our best. We know we have a realistic chance for state. But the path is through a lot of really good teams. We’re gonna see everybody’s best.”

And those who see the Lancers will be Northern California's best. 

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