PASADENA — For the St. Monica Academy girls' volleyball team, there's a bit of a dichotomy in cruising through the International League, then advancing to the postseason.
After winning the league title for an eight consecutive year and not facing much resistance along the way, the Crusaders earned a CIF Southern Section Division IX home game against Ramona Convent.
The Tigers went into the match with a losing record and were ranked lower than the Crusaders in the division, but hailed from the Horizon League, which boasts better competition.
Ultimately, the unfamiliarity of facing a more formidable team, coupled with a lack of experience, resulted in St. Monica's season ending with a 25-13, 25-15, 25-19 defeat at Mayfield High School on Tuesday night.
"They're in a league with Holy Family who we lost to early in the season; they beat them twice," said Crusaders Coach Darren Bradley, who navigated St. Monica to the school's first and only CIF championship last season. "I'd say we played five teams like [Ramona Convent] in the regular season and maybe one team in our league. It's a faster game."
St. Monica (18-8) has just two seniors on its roster. For a team that lost only three games in league this season, playing in the postseason was admittedly something different.
"I thought we had a great season," said Crusaders senior outside hitter Molly Hagan, who led the team with nine kills and was the only returning starter from last year's championship team. "This was sort of a reward, like 'Congrats on a great season.' I think nerves played a role, especially in the first two sets, but they know what the playoffs is all about now."
St. Monica kept each game close early on, before succumbing to extended scoring runs by Ramona Convent (9-11), which proved to be insurmountable.
The Tigers scored eight unanswered in the first to turn a 9-9 tie into a 16-9 advantage. It would be the last of five ties through the first 18 points of the frame. St. Monica cut the deficit down to as little as five after the 8-0 run, but faltered down the stretch to lose my double-digits.
The second game played out similarly, with Ramona Convent taking a 14-7 lead after another 8-0 run to quickly turn a 7-7 tie into a commanding lead, before taking the game and a 2-0 lead.
Hitting errors, miscommunication on defense from the Crusaders, while the Tigers seemed to dig up every ball and flowed more nicely on offense told the story of the first two games.
"We got into a rhythm earlier and once we do that, we can do a lot," Tigers Coach Angel Hernandez said. "The issue was to not get tight early."
St. Monica still looked confident going into the third.
With Hagan serving, the Crusaders had their best stretch of the match, scoring seven unanswered. Hagan got things started with a kill and followed it up with one of her two aces in the rotation. The streak gave St. Monica a 13-12 lead after trailing by six eight points prior. Ramona, however, quickly responded with six straight points to retake a five-point lead at 18-13. The Crusaders wouldn't come closer.
"[Hagan] played a great match," Bradley said. "She had some good hits. But [Ramona] dug up well and played good defense. They were good up the middle, had great ball control ... much better than most teams in our league."
Bradley praised his team on the season overall.
"I'm pleased," he said. "Ten out of 12 players were freshmen or sophomores. I'm glad we kept our league streak and competing with this team tonight bodes well for us."