LA CANADA — Counterintuitive as it may seem, a lead late in a set seemed to be the last thing either team wanted in Thursday night's CIF Southern Section Division V second-round playoff game between Sage Hill School and host Flintridge Prep.
In two of the first three sets, the team that trailed late rallied to win and the Rebels did their best to follow suit with a furious rally in the fourth set after the Lightning began to pull away late.
"I told the kids [before the fourth game], we almost don't want a lead, because whoever led early seemed to lose the game in the end," Prep Coach Sean Beattie said. "It was almost like you wanted to be behind going in."
But Sage Hill bucked the trend for good, weathering the Rebels' fourth-game comeback and fending off game point to preserve a 23-25, 25-23, 25-20, 26-24 win.
"They've got a lot of weapons, our guys found a way, though," said Sage Hill Coach Dan Thomassen, whose sixth-seeded team will play host to Arrowhead Christian Academy in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m.Saturday. "That second and fourth game we were behind both games and found a way to win. That's not easy to do on the road and I'm really proud of our guys."
Following its win in the third game, the only stanza not to feature a tight battle down the stretch, Sage Hill (17-9) tipped the balance of a neck-and-neck fourth game by going up, 15-11, on a kill by Mattias Russo-Larsson, who led all players with 23 kills.
A timeout got the Rebels (16-8) back on track and they tied the game at 16 on a 5-1 run that included one of middle blocker Kenyatta Smith's 10 kills.
But the Rebels weren't done, extending the streak, which was fueled in part by a five-point service run by Chris Davis, to take a 19-16 lead.
"Chris Davis came out with an amazing amount of jump serves and he really jump-started that comeback," said Beattie, whose team advanced to the Division V semifinals last season.
After Sage Hill tied the game at 19, there were five lead changes and four ties down the stretch, with the Rebels taking a 24-23 lead on a ball into the net.
But a Rebels' hitting error gave the Lightning the serve back and Cole Kirby (15 kills) made good with an ace to give Sage Hill match point at 25-24.
"In the times where we were shaky or down, that's when we relied on our passing, our defense and just making our serves and putting pressure on them," Russo-Larsson said. "I think that really worked for us. Our serving really helped us out, and just playing scrappy."
Sage Hill looked sharper from the start in the first set, leading, 17-11, before Prep made its move, battling to take a 23-22 lead and sealing the win on a kill by Edmund Chow, who led the Rebels with 11 kills and 11 digs.
The second set saw Prep take that momentum and run with it, going up, 18-13.
Prep still held a four-point lead after Chow's tip made it 22-18, but Sage Hill closed the set on a 7-1 run capped by a Kirby kill.
"It seemed like every game there was a turnaround," Thomassen said. "The first game we had a decisive lead and they found a way to claw back at home.
"That was a real mental boost for them and our guys really bounced back well. Winning that [second] game was huge."