Sage Hill tops Pacifica Christian, boys’ volleyball pairings released

Sage Hill's Jackson Cryst (12) blocks the ball against Pacifica Christian in a nonleague boys' volleyball match on Friday.
(James Carbone)

Sage Hill heads into the CIF Southern Section boys’ volleyball playoffs for the first time in five years ready to pull off a surprise or two — or five. A lot of that has to do with imposing junior outside hitter Jackson Cryst and how he’s transformed the Lightning over the past month.

Cryst is a towering figure, both literally — he stands 6-foot-10 — and in impact, and he offered a most impressive demonstration in Friday evening’s final postseason prep, delivering 28 kills, seven of them from the back row and three to finish off each successful set, plus five blocks and three service aces in a 25-21, 25-20, 26-28, 25-21 victory at crosstown foe Pacifica Christian.

The numbers are swell and not uncommon, but they fail to approximate the Long Beach Millikan transfer’s impact since he became eligible on March 21. Sage Hill (17-8), which will open the Division 5 playoffs Thursday at Fullerton (20-9), is 11-3 since, and head coach Shelby Young says that’s a testament to Cryst’s ability to lift the game of those around him.

Pacifica Christian's Kallai Kumar (8) spikes the ball against Sage Hill in a nonleague boys' volleyball match on Friday.
(James Carbone)

“We have come together, and it’s an amazing result right now, but that development of not getting too high, not getting too low,” Young said after the four-set nonleague decision. “Not getting too hyped, not getting down on our mistakes, staying composed. It has been a journey. He’s been a great leader with that.”

Cryst, who is being recruited by top-five programs UCLA, Long Beach State and Hawaii, was all over the court against Pacifica Christian (11-11), setting when needed, often providing the first ball for a strong set, and finishing from the left side or from the rear.

“I feel it’s pretty important to take command of the game and lead all the other guys, help them rise to the level of play that we need to play to win,” Cryst said. “If I can touch the ball as many times as possible [to connect with teammates], and better it every time, I think that’s one of the biggest keys to us winning as a team and not just me hitting 50 high balls every game.”

Sage Hill's Connor Gapp (1) spikes the ball against Pacifica Christian's Spence Richards (15) on Friday.
(James Carbone)

Cryst had 11 kills in the decisive set, when Sage Hill took off on an 11-0 run at the midpoint to coast home after failing to finish a sweep despite two match points in the third set. That’s the sort of thing that makes these last-day-of-regular-season encounters valuable.

“To be able to battle back after losing that one set is really prepping us to go into the playoffs and not lose a single set,” Cryst said. “We faced that adversity, we kind of had that little slump in that set, and everybody was able to fire back up. Because that’s bound to happen in the playoffs. You can’t play perfect all the way through, but knowing that everybody can rally, that’s what we need going into the playoffs, that kind of confidence.”

Young said such responses were “few and far between at the beginning of the season, but we are coming together as a true team.”

Pacifica Christian's Callen Bray (5) makes a pass against Sage Hill in a nonleague boys' volleyball match on Friday.
(James Carbone)

The Lightning, the Pacific Hills League runner-up, isn’t among the fancied teams in the Division 5 field, but, she said, “We’re definitely going to be a (dark) horse. I’m excited to take some people by surprise.”

Connor Gapp totaled nine kills, three aces and two blocks, Dylan Han had four aces — three in the span of six final-set serves — and their fellow sophomore Ryan Manesh added five kills.

San Joaquin League runner-up Pacifica Christian (11-11), which plays at top-seeded Redondo Union (20-6) in a Division 2 opener Thursday, has been in a rebuilding year after going 52-22 with five postseason wins the past three seasons, and head coach Ron Cheser, who took charge in early March, says things are coming together.

Pacifica Christian's Caleb Unkrich (3), Callen Bray and Kallai Kumar (8) celebrate a point against Sage Hill on Friday.
(James Carbone)

The Tritons went 4-1 in league play after dropping their first three games and took champion Capistrano Valley Christian to five sets in both meetings. They played Sage Hill tight most of the way and excelled during a 7-3 run to close the third set. The sweep was averted twice, on a Spence Richards block and then Lightning middle blocker Omar Al-Khatib’s net violation, and they pulled it out on successive Kallai Kumar kills.

“[How] we responded tonight, that was not the same team seven weeks ago,” said Cheser, who has coached at Edison, Beckman, Mater Dei and Long Beach State and runs Pacifica Christian’s girls’ program. “They’re learning to push through adversity, work together, and keep things together. And that was the key. They’re athletic enough, they just needed to know it’s OK, we all make mistakes.

“Our future looks great. We are on the rise.”

Pacifica Christian students and parents cheer for their boys' volleyball team against Sage Hill on Friday.
(James Carbone)

Hudson Reynolds led Pacifica Christian with 18 kills, two blocks and two aces. Kumar had 15 kills and three blocks, Richards seven kills and a block, Grayson Baker four blocks, and setter Callen Bray three blocks.

There are postseason aspirations in what’s likely the country’s second-best playoff division, so going up against Cryst was valuable.

“They had a Division 1 hitter there on the outside,” said Reynolds, a junior outside hitter. “It’s always good to play against huge hitters to get our block ready and defense ready. It sucks to lose but it was a great experience to witness something like that before playoffs start.

“Our league record is not going to do us any favors [in the pairings], but I feel we can come out and get a win or two.”

Pacifica Christian's Callen Bray (5) sets up Kallai Kumar (8) for a kill against Sage Hill on Friday.
(James Carbone)

CIF Southern Section boys’ volleyball playoff pairings

Division 1

Pool A

No. 5 Huntington Beach at No. 1 Los Angeles Loyola

No. 8 Mater Dei at No. 4 Newport Harbor

Pool B

No. 7 Edison at No. 3 Corona del Mar

Division 2

Pacifica Christian at No. 1 Redondo Union

Division 3

Crescenta Valley at No. 2 Fountain Valley

Division 5

Sage Hill at Fullerton

Division 6

Costa Mesa at Montclair (wild-card round)

Division 7

Liberty Christian at Los Angeles Shalhevet

Staff writer Andrew Turner contributed to this report.