Up until this year, rivals Sage Hill School and St. Margaret’s had been preeminent powers of the Academy League when it came to girls’ volleyball.
It took a restructuring of the league to end that reign, but the Lightning and the Tartans still got grouped together.
To the surprise of no one, Sage Hill and St. Margaret’s once again positioned themselves to contend for a league title, this time in the San Joaquin League.
Amiyah De’Long had 19 kills, and the Lightning defeated the visiting Tartans 25-23, 25-22, 26-24 on Tuesday night, clinching the San Joaquin League title outright in the regular-season finale.
A loud crowd piled into Ueberroth Gymnasium, providing sights and sounds that had Sydnee Francis waxing nostalgic about her freshman year on senior night.
Sage Hill (12-11, 7-1 in league) has won three consecutive league titles, but St. Margaret’s was the last to keep the Lightning from claiming a league championship in 2015.
Our adrenaline was pumping, but the crowd really helped us. We were really determined to win tonight. It’s our last league game, so we wanted to go out strong.
“Freshman year, the stands were full for St. Margaret’s all the time,” Francis said. “We had the tunnel going, and we haven’t had that since freshman year, so having that energy was super fun.”
De’Long and Francis are both senior outside hitters who have received a varsity letter all four years with the Lightning. The former seemed to take in the whole senior night festivities, wearing a smile that lasted from the prematch ceremony through the victory celebration.
A recent commit to Stony Brook University in New York, De’Long began the match with eight kills in the first set.
“I think I was in the zone,” De’Long said.
St. Margaret’s (15-10, 5-3) put up a strong block and served well enough to take the Lightning out of sync in the second set. Lightning setter Danielle Beder had 28 assists in the match, but just three of those came in Game 2.
Senior libero Lauren Langdale described the battle of wills that can go on when the Lightning and the Tartans share the court.
“I think it can be pretty stressful since we all want to win,” Langdale said. “Our adrenaline was pumping, but the crowd really helped us. We were really determined to win tonight. It’s our last league game, so we wanted to go out strong.”
Francis had 12 kills, two blocks and two aces. Emily Elliott churned out four kills and two blocks, Natalia Bryant had three blocks, and Langdale added 13 digs.
Gracyn Benck, a Holy Cross commit, had 13 kills to lead the Tartans. Emerson Flornes and Liv Hale each added seven kills.
Sage Hill wound up sweeping St. Margaret’s in league, having handed the Tartans a five-set defeat on the road earlier this season. St. Margaret’s entered the week ranked second in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 poll.
“I think they did what we expected,” Lightning coach Dan Thomassen said of his team’s performance. “I don’t think that anyone played out of their minds tonight. We all played really good.
“We played the way that we’re capable of, and what makes us really proud as coaches is to see how they bond in tight moments and play their best volleyball when it’s 21-24, or 23-all. That shows a lot of character.”
The Lightning gained belief from a narrow defeat at San Juan Hills last Wednesday. The Stallions sit at No. 8 in the Division 1 and 2 combined rankings, but Sage Hill pushed the match to five sets.
“San Juan Hills was a huge confidence-booster, for sure,” Francis said. “I think we went in just trying to do what we could, get some reps in and do our best. I think that really helped with the energy of our team and the confidence level.”
Sage Hill will await its Division 3 draw when the section releases the playoff brackets on Saturday at 1 p.m.