SAN CLEMENTE — When it was over, the Sage Hill School girls' tennis team's trek from the courts to its bus involved a short climb.
But, after an 11-7 Academy League loss to host St. Margaret's at the San Clemente Tennis Center, Coach A.G. Longoria indicated that his Lightning would need to further ascend to reach the championship bar clearly set by the Tartans on Tuesday.
Believing the Tartans (5-0 in league), ranked No. 4 in CIF Southern Section Division III, have superior talent this season, Longoria attempted to stack his doubles, hoping his No. 6-ranked visitors (8-3, 4-1) could pull off an upset.
"We stacked the doubles and that may be an option [for the rematch on Oct. 29 at the Tennis Club Newport Beach]," Longoria said. "But [the Tartans] are so tough that we give up so much in singles. If we tied, 9-9, they would win on games. So, we'll have to look at that, as far as our lineups."
Sage's doubles teams produced all seven of its set victories, including a sweep in the No. 2 spot by juniors Rian Billingsley and Katie Bick. Bick, typically the Lightning's No. 1 singles player, and Billingsley won 18 of 22 games, including a 6-3 triumph over the hosts' No. 1 tandem of junior Madison Gotlieb and senior Hannah Hess.
Sage's No. 1 pairing of senior Devyn Billingsley and sophomore Lauren Hsu won two of three sets, as did the Lightning's No. 3 duo of junior Ava Soleimany and senior Olivia Simon.
But St. Margaret's dominated in singles, allowing Sage Hill to win only eight of 62 games.
"I think we played about as well as we could play," Longoria said. "I know the singles scores didn't look very good, but [the Tartans] are just so tough."
Still, Longoria, who said he thinks St. Margaret's is the best team in Division III, said dethroning the two-time defending league champion Tartans is still within the realm of possibility.
"There is plenty to build on," Longoria said. "Our girls know we get to play them at our place [in the second round of league play]. That's worth at least a game, maybe another set. We get a little bit lucky, we push it a little bit. We've got [17 days] before we play them again. A lot can happen."
A lot happened in the opening-round doubles clash between No. 3 teams, as Soleimany and Simon prevailed, 7-6 (7-2 in the tiebreaker), in a marathon that nearly took longer than two rounds of singles.
Soleimany and Simon led, 5-2, before Caroline Smith and Heather Hughes rallied to force the tiebreaker, in which the Sage duo won the first six points to establish command.
"That was an excellent effort from them," Longoria said of the two set victories by Soleimany and Simon, who led the St. Margaret's No. 1 tandem, 2-1, before Gotlieb and Hess turned it on to claim a 6-2 triumph.
Longoria praised the play of Bick and Rian Billingsley and was also impressed with the singles showing of junior Casey Astorino, who typically plays doubles with Rian Billingsley.
Devyn Billingsley and Hsu earned 6-1, 6-0 triumphs, after falling to Gotlieb and Hess, 6-3, in the opening round.
"Devyn and Lauren had some chances to sweep, too," Longoria said. "That could have made a little bit of a difference."