Three Sage Hill School seniors have returned from their third trip to Hawaii in four years. The three deserved to go to paradise again before the start of their final girls' volleyball season together.
Kekai Whitford, Halland McKenna and Maddy Abbott have built a dynasty at Sage Hill. The trio has played vital roles in Sage Hill reaching three straight CIF Southern Section finals, winning it twice, along with the school's first CIF State Southern California Regional Division III finals appearance.
Each of the team's runs have begun in Hawaii, on two different islands, Maui three years ago, Oahu last year, and Maui this year.
The outings in August have allowed players to bond, to learn, to work, to play, and for Whitford and McKenna, to spend time with loved ones who live in Hawaii.
Whitford's mother, Cathy Hedges, stays in Oahu, where McKenna's grandfather, Mike McKenna, also calls home. When Whitford and Halland McKenna have played with the Lightning on either island, their family members have come out to support them and their team.
Mike McKenna was able to see his granddaughter play for the first time last year.
Mike, who has made a living owning car dealerships, was easily sold on the team's performance. Sage Hill finished as the silver bracket champion at the prestigious Ann Kang Invitational in Honolulu.
Every visit to Hawaii has been special. The latest one ended with Sage Hill winning the top prize at a tournament for the first time on Hawaiian soil.
Whitford's family flew to Maui to watch her and Sage Hill claim the fifth annual Kamehameha Maui Invitational.
After Sage Hill topped Edison, 25-20, 25-23, in the best-of-three final in the Ikaika Division on Aug. 16, Whitford left her team. She joined her family for a Hawaiian potluck.
The gathering gave Whitford time to catch up with her mother, whom she misses.
"She moved back [to Hawaii] about three years ago," said Whitford, who lives with her father, Billy Whitford, and stepmother, Pua Whitford, in Costa Mesa. "It's definitely hard, but I really have a great support system here with my family."
Whitford's family extends to the court. Coach Dan Thomassen has created a family atmosphere during his 11 seasons with the Lightning.
The team has come closer together since Whitford, McKenna and Abbott arrived three years ago as freshmen. They easily could have gone elsewhere for high school, to bigger and higher profile programs.
Whitford's father played at Newport Harbor, helping the school's football program in 1970 to a share of the Sunset League title. McKenna lives in Laguna Beach, the school her brother, Hutton, attended. Abbott had the chance to go to Corona del Mar or Mater Dei.
The three chose Sage Hill, a private school that opened in 2000 and had advanced to the section finals only once before they enrolled. None of them regrets the decision.
"I love the school," said Abbott, who's fond of Sage Hill's challenging classes, the school's small size, with enrollment around 500 students, and the relationships she has built through playing volleyball.
This season might be Abbott's last playing the sport. While Whitford and McKenna have committed to play volleyball at Loyola Marymount and Stanford, respectively, Abbott isn't sure where she will end up.
Whitford and McKenna said they believe Abbott has what it takes to compete on the next level.
Abbott is the player responsible for setting up Sage Hill's attack, for feeding Whitford and McKenna, the team's 5-foot-7 outside hitters, the ball. Abbott will continue do so at a high level, and Sage Hill needs her to in order to fulfill its goals.
Abbott, McKenna and Whitford want to bring the first outright Academy League girls' volleyball title to Sage Hill. The program has shared it three times, last year with Crean Lutheran, three years ago with rival St. Margaret's, and nine years ago with St. Margaret's. During those same years, Sage Hill wound up beating each of those teams for the section title, Crean Lutheran in Division 3A, and St. Margaret's in Division 4AA and Division IVA.
A fourth consecutive trip to the section finals appears likely for the Lightning, as well as a debut in a state final. McKenna, Whitford and Abbott aren't looking that far ahead. Sage Hill opens the season next week, against section finalists from last season.
The opener is at Los Angeles Windward on Wednesday at 5:15 p.m., followed by a home date against Mater Dei on Friday at 6:30 p.m.
"Two things that this team has that none of our teams in the past have had are depth and athleticism," Thomassen said. "With those three seniors, Kekai Whitford, Halland McKenna and Maddy Abbott, leading the way, this team can certainly go down as the school's best."
Here's a look at the area girls' volleyball squads:
Corona del Mar Sea Kings
Coach: Steve Astor (second year)
2013 season: 25-6, 10-0 in the Pacific Coast League (first place); lost in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs
Players to watch: S Paige Migliori (Sr.); OH Katie Craig (Sr.); S-OPP Jessica Harris (Jr.); MB Samantha Jones (Sr.); MB Natalia Bruening (Jr.); L Peyton Carter (Jr.); L Paige Fauntleroy (Sr.)
You should know: Life without Hayley Hodson begins for the Sea Kings. Hodson, a Stanford commit, opted not to return for her senior season, leaving the Sea Kings without their powerful 6-foot-4 outside hitter. The program enjoyed a lot of success with Hodson, a quarterfinal appearance in the CIF Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs last year, a Division 1AA semifinal trip two years ago, and a Division 1A finals run three years ago. Astor lost two starters, Hodson, a member of the U.S. women's junior national team, and opposite Jules Pouch (graduation). Six players with experience return, including Migliori, Craig and Harris. Astor said this year's team will be scrappier, and CdM will have to be with a daunting nonleague schedule ahead. The Sea Kings open the season at home against perennial section title contender Los Angeles Marymount on Thursday, before competing in the Dave Mohs Championships (Sept. 12-13, 15), playing host to rival Newport Harbor in the Battle of the Bay (Sept. 18), traveling to the Chicago for the Mother McAuley ASICS Challenge (Oct. 3-4) and the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions (Oct. 31-Nov. 1), and closing out the regular season at San Diego Cathedral Catholic (Nov. 6), a CIF State Division III qualifier last season.
Costa Mesa Mustangs
Coach: Todd Hanson (second year)
2013 season: 2-17, 1-9 in the Orange Coast League (last place)
Players to watch: MB Stephanie Willett (Sr.); L Karina Cruz (Sr.); OH Catherine Krikorian (Sr.); OH Kirsten Gyorgy (Sr.); S Kintak Keju (So.)
You should know: Hanson brings back some stability for the Mustangs, who before he arrived last season, the team had seven coaches in eight years. In Hanson's debut season, Costa Mesa shared last place with Saddleback, the only team it defeated last year. Hanson expects Costa Mesa to finish second or third in league, and he has seen his players make huge strides. Helping the Mustangs was having 15 current players, seven from varsity, join his Costa Mesa-based club team, Pierside. Hanson said the team has cut down on unforced errors, which plagued Costa Mesa in its rebuilding efforts. Three players who improved a lot in the off-season were Willett, a first-team All-Orange Coast League member last season, Cruz and Keju. Eight players return, half of them starters. The Mustangs open the season at the Segerstrom Tournament (Sept. 6), one of two tournaments they are competing in this year. The other is the Dave Mohs Championships (Sept. 12-13, 15). Hanson said the team to beat in league is always Laguna Beach, and he hopes the Mustangs can knock off their cross-town rival Estancia. Costa Mesa has dropped 20 straight matches to the Eagles.
Coach: Nick Singleton (first year)
2013 season: 9-17, 6-4 in the Orange Coast League (third place); lost in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1A playoffs
Players to watch: OH-MB Eliza Jason (Sr.); OH Sarah Graham (Fr.)
You should know: Singleton makes his debut with the Eagles, and he hasn't formed a roster yet. Try outs are on Sept. 5, three days after the first day of school. Singleton came on late as a hire, in early August, and that's why the program is behind schedule. He comes from Anza Hamilton, where he guided the girls' team for three years, each time to the CIF Southern Section playoffs. Singleton, who's 35, replaced Paul Munoz, who led Estancia for four seasons and to the postseason every time. The Eagles are in better shape than the situation Singleton walked into at his previous school. Singleton said many players at Hamilton had never touched a volleyball before he arrived, and he helped turn things around, guiding the small school to fourth-place finishes in the seven-team Arrowhead League. Singleton is happy to be in Orange County again. He played for Huntington Beach High as a defensive specialist, before graduating in 1997. Before leaving for Hamilton, Singleton was a substitute teacher in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, and always hoped to return to the district as a teacher. Singleton will teach math at Estancia, and he doesn't plan to leave the school.
Newport Harbor Sailors
Coach: Dan Glenn (29th year)
2013 season: 11-21, 6-4 in the Sunset League (third place); lost in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs
Players to watch: L Sammie Yeager (Sr.); OH Gabby Shelley (Sr.); S Logan Grove (Sr.); OH Remy Wilson (Jr.); MB Jessy Rath (Jr.); S Ellie Hagadorn (Jr.), OH Katie Duhoux (Sr.); OH Kaitlynn Bell (Sr.); OH Brooke Schweitzer (Sr.)
You should know: Glenn, a volleyball institution, likes his team's chances of contending for a Sunset League title. He calls the league wide open and a bit down. Los Alamitos, the defending CIF Southern Section Division 1AA champion, has won or shared the league title since the Sailors rejoined the league in 2006. Newport Harbor last split the league crown with Los Alamitos in 2009, the same year it won the CIF Southern Section Division 1AA title and the CIF State Division I title. Glenn, who has won seven section titles and five state titles, isn't looking far ahead. Having nine players back (six starters) is a strong foundation. The team recently returned from the Ann Kang Invitational in Hawaii. While the 1-6 mark at the tournament doesn't look good, Glenn said the team is ready for the season. The Sailors struggled early on last year, posting a 3-12 record, the worst start under Glenn. Newport Harbor's opener is at home against Long Beach Poly on Sept. 4, and it competes in the Dave Mohs Championships (Sept. 12-13, 15), before it travels to rival Corona del Mar for the Battle of the Bay (Sept. 18), then to Chicago for the Mother McAuley ASICS Challenge (Oct. 3-4), and the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions (Oct. 31-Nov. 1).
Sage Hill Lightning
Coach: Dan Thomassen (11th year)
2013 season: 28-6, 11-1 in the Academy League (first place); won the CIF Southern Section Division 3A title; lost in the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III finals
Players to watch: OH Kekai Whitford (Sr.); OH Halland McKenna (Sr.); S Maddy Abbott (Sr.); MB Sophia Mossman (Jr.); MB Jamie Dailey (Soph.); OPP-S Jade Blevins; L Sahar Rohani (Soph.); L Lina Aluzri (Jr.); OH Emily Lassiter (So.)
You should know: Sage Hill has the three seniors — Whitford, McKenna and Abbott — to top last year's historic run. As juniors last season, the trio led the Lightning to a CIF Southern Section Division 3A title, the program's third section championship, and the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III finals for the first time. Sage Hill has reached the section finals in each of the three seasons Whitford, McKenna and Abbott have played. During the stretch, the team has won the section crown twice, beating Crean Lutheran a year ago and St. Margaret's three years ago. Both Crean Lutheran and St. Margaret's are in the Academy League with Sage Hill. Crean Lutheran split first place with the Lightning last season, and each time Sage Hill has shared the top spot, in 2005, '11 and '13, it has gone on to win a section title. Thomassen said this is the year Sage Hill takes the league outright and the section title, which has never happened in the same year. Finishing as state champion for the first time is the goal as well. Right off the bat Sage Hill faces two section runner-up teams from last season, Division 3AA Los Angeles Windward (Sept. 3) and Division 1AA Mater Dei (Sept. 5).