NEWPORT COAST — The season ended much too quickly for the Sage Hill School boys' volleyball team.
Even worse, the Lightning players even thought it ended unfairly.
"The point" was a topic of discussion after Saturday afternoon's match, that point being match point as the Lightning fell to visiting Arrowhead Christian Academy of Redlands, 25-23, 25-22, 27-25, in a CIF Southern Section Division V quarterfinal match at Sage Hill.
Down match point at 25-26 in the third set, Sage Hill's Mattias Russo-Larsson appeared to have a cross-court kill. The ball appeared to hit the ground before it hit the foot of Arrowhead Christian's Luke Spoelstra, and the Lightning rushed together to celebrate the set-tying kill.
But the officials never blew the whistle, and the Eagles never stopped playing. They kept the ball alive and hit it over the net for a kill, not hard to do as all the Sage Hill players congregated in the middle.
Controversial, yes, but point Arrowhead Christian. The match, and the season, were over for Sage Hill.
"The ball trapped on his foot and maybe hit the floor," Arrowhead Christian Coach Mike Allen said. "I don't know. Unfortunately, the lady didn't say anything, and our guys just kept going. I know for a fact he had his foot on it, but I don't know if the ball hit the floor first."
Russo-Larsson couldn't believe it. Hands on his head, he rushed toward the official before being restrained by Sage Hill Coach Dan Thomassen. After a long post-match team meeting, he was calmer, but clearly still bugged to have his high school career end in that matter.
"It hit the ground," Russo-Larsson said. "It bounced, clearly, right off the ground. After that I pretty much looked away. I mean, that's tough, coming down to the last point and having that happen. But you've got to look at the whole season; it's not all about one point, one bad call. There's a lot more to the season, and that's what we're trying to focus on right now and be proud of what we did. I know that I didn't expect us to come this far, losing five seniors [from last year]."
Sophomore Cole Kirby had a team-high 13 kills for the sixth-seeded Lightning, who were tied as late as 23-23 in the first set, but had a bad second set and couldn't quite complete a comeback.
Sage Hill also fell behind 6-2 in the third set but found a way to come back against No. 4-seeded Arrowhead Christian, even getting two set points, at 24-23 and 25-24, before ultimately falling.
"That was one of the most impressive things about the match for me," said Thomassen, who also said he saw the ball hit the ground on match point. "Our guys put themselves in a position to win that third [set] after a really bad start, and a bad first two [sets]. We just chipped away and played some of our best volleyball of the season."
Russo-Larsson had 12 kills, 10 digs and three aces for Sage Hill (17-10). Freshman Kent Kawaguchi added five kills and nine digs, and senior setter Jesse Xiao dished up 33 assists. But the Lightning couldn't finish in that third set.
Long Beach State-bound Will Quanstrom led Arrowhead Christian (21-6) with 23 kills and five blocks.
"He's our leader in digs, leader in blocks, leader in kills," Allen said. "If he was setting he'd be our leader in assists."
The Lightning would have felt better if they didn't feel the Eagles got an assist from the referees.
But the mood had switched a bit to celebratory after the match. And the future looks bright as Sage will lose just three players — Russo-Larsson, Xiao and senior defensive specialist Trent Friedmann — for next year.
"We went out not playing our best match, but playing as hard as we possibly could," Thomassen said.