Francis lifts Sage Hill over Taft in opening round of CIF State girls' volleyball playoffs

Sydnee Francis does not get off the ground much when she throws herself into attack mode, but she did raise her game for the Sage Hill School girls’ volleyball team on Wednesday.

Lightning coach Dan Thomassen called the junior outside hitter the team’s emotional leader in its 25-18, 25-20, 26-24 victory over visiting Woodland Hills Taft in the first round of the CIF State Southern California Regional Division II playoffs.

On a night that No. 5-seeded Sage Hill perhaps did not play its best, Francis led the team to a sweep with 13 kills, nine digs and two service aces.

“I thought passing, serving and attacking, she played pretty smart volleyball,” Thomassen said. “She’s been doing that all year. For a junior who is in her first year at outside hitter, she just keeps getting better.”

Sage Hill’s core of senior setter Jade Blevins, junior outside hitter Amiyah De’Long and Francis has been together for three years. From this point forward, any match they play in a Sage Hill uniform could be their last together.

Blevins, who signed with the University of Portland, had 31 assists, six digs and three blocks.

“Our team has really bonded, and we’re really together,” Francis said. “We’re playing for our team, and we’re playing for our seniors to keep playing with them. We don’t want to have to finish the season on a loss.”

Sage Hill (25-9) will host Academy League rival Crean Lutheran (22-8) in a SoCal Regional quarterfinal match on Saturday at 6 p.m. The No. 13 Saints swept No. 4 Solana Beach Santa Fe Christian 25-17, 25-18, 25-20 on Wednesday.

Crean Lutheran is one of two teams to push Sage Hill to five sets in a match this year. The other was Pasadena La Salle, which beat the Lightning in the CIF Southern Section Division 3 semifinals.

Sage Hill pulled away in the first set against No. 12 Taft (32-11), behind a five-point run on De’Long’s serve. She had two aces during the spurt.

Kayla Gratzer produced a set-ending kill, one of her two kills during the match, to give the Lightning the first set 25-18. Francis also had five kills in the opening set.

The start of the second set made it appear as though a rout was on. Sage Hill opened Game 1 up 9-3, but the Toreadors climbed back into it. At one point, the margin was narrowed to 18-16.

A couple of late kills from Danielle Beder helped the Lightning build the lead back up, and a hitting error by Samantha Hakimi ended the second set, which Sage Hill won 25-20.

Although there were 10 seniors on the Taft roster, Toreadors coach Arman Mercado said that sophomores Danae Johnson, Nieko Thomas and Shelby Roloff forced their way into the starting lineup midway through the season.

They showed why in the second half of the match. Roloff (seven kills), an outside hitter, and Thomas (six kills), a middle blocker, activated as hitters to make the second and third sets competitive.

Maya Steward’s eight kills paced Taft, and Sydney Higginson added 28 assists. The Toreadors made the semifinals of the CIF Los Angeles City Section Open Division playoffs this year.

There were 12 ties in Game 3, but as the set hit the late stages, De’Long came to life. She had been quiet through the first two sets, but she provided five of her eight kills in the final set. Her last kill set up a match point, which the Lightning converted on an ace by Priya Kamdar.

“What’s great about Amiyah is that she is always ready for the big set,” Thomassen said. “We needed her at the end. We were a little sloppy.

“She got in the front row. We gave her the ball three or four times, and she converted every single one of them. Those big kills at the end helped us finish the match.”

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