PASADENA —With his girls' volleyball program having completed the greatest season in school history a season prior, St. Monica Academy Coach Darren Bradley wasn't sure what to expect in 2016.
In 2015, the coach's senior-laden squad won an International League title and a CIF Southern Section Division V-A championship while finishing with 25 victories and a state playoff win.
This year's squad, which only returned senior outside hitter Molly Hagan, showed it was at least up to task in keeping up its dominance in league play. The Crusaders finished off an undefeated run through the International League with a 28-26, 25-16, 25-19 victory in Tuesday afternoon's season finale against Ly Lycee.
The win completed an 18-7 record and 12-0 mark in International League play, while St. Monica extended its league winning streak to 68 straight.
St. Monica will now await Friday afternoon's CIF Southern Section Division IX playoff pairings, which are set to be released at 2 p.m. The Crusaders will open home action in Tuesday's first round at 7 p.m.
"It's like I said at the beginning of the season, if we won league this year and won in the first round of the playoffs, to me, that would be like the equivalent of what we did last year," Bradley said. "We're one step away. We'll [likely] play a fourth-place team from another league, so we'll see."
Hagan turned in a strong effort for the Crusaders as she finished with a match-high 11 kills and five aces. St. Monica sophomore Grace Brady (five kills) was the only player from either side to finish with five or more kills.
"I'm so proud of this moment and of this team," Hagan said. "We really had no idea what to expect. We only had a few girls with really any experience, so I figured this would be the year we'd lose the streak and maybe even league, but it didn't happen because these girls improved every week."
Though St. Monica continued its winning streak, the squad was more vulnerable this year than in previous campaigns and lost three sets this season, including two in a 3-2 victory over Ly Lycee the first time both teams matched up on Oct. 6.
A Crusaders' double-hit violation gave visiting Ly Lycee (10-8-1, 8-4) a 23-21 lead in the first game.
It appeared the Crusaders were on their way to defeat again when back-to-back Ly Lycee attacking errors followed by an ace from Hagan suddenly thrust St. Monica ahead, 24-23.
Ly Lycee tied on a service error and went ahead, 25-24, on a dump from Mila Greenberg (four kills and five aces).
St. Monica fended off game point there (thanks to a service error) and again at 26-25 on an attacking error before seizing momentum.
A Ly Lycee hitting error followed by a kill from Brady gave the Crusaders a 27-26 advantage before a ball into the net from Ly Lycee ended a wild 28-26 victory for St. Monica.
"We didn't want to lose the streak, to be the team that lost the streak," said St. Monica freshman outside hitter Katie Golbranson, who tallied four kills and two aces. "We knew how good last year's team was and we just wanted to work our hardest."
Up, 13-11, in the second set after a service error, St. Monica embarked on a 7-0 run behind three aces and a kill from Hagan to take a 20-11 lead that eventually turned into 25-16 victory.
As for the third set, the Crusaders' biggest enemy was complacency.
St. Monica raced to a 10-0 advantage, but then committed several errors that allowed Ly Lycee to climb within 14-10 after an ace from Greenberg.
St. Monica responded with a 10-5 spurt to reach match point, 24-15. It took five tries for St. Monica to finally put away Ly Lycee, 25-19, on a kill from Ana Romero.
"Half the girls didn't know about the win streak until like 10 days ago," Bradley said. "We kept it under wraps because we didn't want to put any pressure on this team. I just wasn't sure how this team would turn out, but I couldn't be happier."