With a starting lineup that consists mostly of sophomores, the Laguna Beach High girls' volleyball team is young this season.
That's not an excuse for the Breakers, the top-ranked team in CIF Southern Section Division 3. But it does make the senior leadership the team does have all the more important.
Outside hitter Lexi McKeown, the only senior starter, fits that mold. She did so again on Wednesday night in leading the Breakers to a big win on their home court.
McKeown put away 23 kills and Laguna Beach beat Sage Hill in four sets, 25-23, 25-16, 23-25, 25-20, in a battle of Division 3 powers.
Sage Hill is ranked No. 4 in Division 3, and after the match both Breakers coach Shawn Patchell and Lightning coach Dan Thomassen expressed hope that the programs could meet again in the postseason.
For now, Wednesday's match provided a good reprieve from dominating league play, with the Breakers (11-5) and Lightning (16-8) both undefeated in the Orange Coast and Academy leagues, respectively.
"It was nice to get some real competition," said McKeown, who is committed to Florida State for beach volleyball. "They're a really good team, and we definitely stepped up to the plate against them … I definitely have to be more of leader this year. With such a young team, it's important to keep everyone focused on the game throughout the entire thing, not be distracted with outside things."
Sophomore opposite Piper Naess had 16 kills and three service aces for the winners, while fellow sophomore Soren Patchell chipped in eight kills. The team's other setter, sophomore Peri Brennan, had five kills and 25 assists.
McKeown had 10 digs for Laguna, which was led in that category by sophomore libero Hallie Carballo with 18. But, with Sage Hill senior setter Jade Blevins serving, the Breakers lost the first five points of the match. That seemed to set the trend, with Laguna Beach falling behind early in the set only to rally late.
"She's a good server, so she got us out of system," Shawn Patchell said of Blevins, who had 35 assists. "They started very well … Dan's a great coach, and I think it's just good to play good to play someone like Sage Hill to get ready for CIF. It kind of felt like a playoff match. It was exactly what we wanted when we scheduled them. We weren't great tonight, but I was happy that we grinded it out."
Juniors Amiyah De'Long and Sydnee Francis led the Lightning attack with 18 and 13 kills, respectively. Sage Hill refused to get swept, rallying from a 23-20 deficit in the third set. The Lightning won the last five points. Three kills from De'Long came in that stretch, including on set point.
The fourth set was tied as late as 19-19, but the Breakers won six of the last seven points.
"I loved the way we played in games three and four," Thomassen said. "Even though we made some mistakes, they were good mistakes. We just kept getting better at serving and passing, and scrapping for points. I've got to give a lot of credit to Laguna. They're really scrappy, they play good defense and they're smart volleyball players. I think both teams are hoping that we get to see each other late in the playoffs. That would be a really exciting match."
The Lightning know about being the top seed in Division 3. That's the spot they had last year, when they lost in the semifinals in five to Lakewood St. Joseph.
The Breakers, who moved down a division from Division 2, are now looking to hold that top seed this year. They play at Costa Mesa on Thursday in an Orange Coast League match, then travel to the SoCal Invitational tournament this weekend in San Diego.
Laguna Beach, which also starts a freshman in middle blocker Jackie Strawn, may be young. But the goal is clear.
"We're definitely going for that [CIF championship] ring this year," McKeown said.