Sage shows heart

NEWPORT BEACH — Shortly before playing a huge playoff match, Devyn and Rian Billingsley became distraught Thursday.

The Sage Hill School girls' tennis players wept when they found out their aunt, Shirley Billingsley, died earlier in the day. Their father, Michael, and Shirley's brother, said simple words to prepare them for an emotional day.

"You know what your aunt would say?" he said to his daughters. "You better do what you better do."

Somehow that quote inspired the two girls and their teammates also played with great passion. There were so many heroes for the Lightning. Their spirited play, and their unity, led No. 5-seeded Sage Hill to a 10-8 upset against top-seeded West Ranch of Valencia at The Tennis Club Newport Beach.

Junior Casey Astorino, the Lightning's No. 2 singles player, grabbed a dramatic 6-3 win to clinch the team victory in the CIF Southern Section Division III semifinal. If she would have lost, Sage Hill would've been eliminated on games, as West Ranch led, 69-63, going into Astorino's final set. Sage's No. 3 doubles team of senior Olivia Simon and junior Ava Soleimany came up big with a sweep, as did the No. 1 tandem of juniors Katie Bick and Rian Billingsley.

The Lightning advance to Monday's Division III final against No. 4-seeded St. Margaret's 10 a.m. at the Claremont Club. Sage Hill, which won its first and lone CIF title in Division V in 2005, will be playing in its fourth final, its first since 2008 when it lost to rival St. Margaret's.

Sage Hill has not beaten the Tartans (24-0) since 2007, Oct. 31, when it swept the season series to win the Academy League title.

But after their victory against West Ranch, the Lightning has great confidence that they can break the trend.

To earn that opportunity, so many players stepped up, and two of them played with heavy hearts.

"They both came off the court and cried," Michael Billingsley said of his daughters. "I told them she was here."

Devyn and Rian Billingsley last saw their aunt, who resided in Michigan, during Labor Day Weekend. They say they were close to their aunt. Shirley Billingsley was 56 when she died of complications from surgeries that included nerve repair and hip and knee replacements, Michael Billingsley said.

There was never a thought to sit out the match for the Billingsley sisters. Their aunt's passing inspired them.

"In a way it fed me to play better," Rian Billingsley said. "I used that energy for good … My aunt wouldn't want me to use [her dying] as an excuse, and it was either go all out or I wouldn't play."

Said Devyn Billingsley: "I definitely knew I was going to play today. It's a team. I couldn't leave them."

Rian Billingsley hit the ball with all her might while warming up, she said. She admitted she was too amped and nervous. She and Bick trailed, 2-0, in their opening set.

But they quickly snapped out of it.

Devyn Billingsley, a senior team captain, said it was difficult for her to play with so much occupying her mind. She won one set with her partner Lauren Hsu, a sophomore.

But she took comfort knowing every point was so crucial against the Wildcats.

That definitely applied to Astorino, who lost her first two sets, 6-0, 6-0.

She usually plays at No. 3 singles, but Coach A.G. Longoria moved her to No. 2 against West Ranch because he believed it would prepare her better for the final set. The coach was impressed with Astorino's ability to play under pressure.

She wasn't aware of the score, but she knew the match was close when the crowd came to watch her set against Angela Park.

Astorino said she started to doubt herself and felt insecure. At No. 3 singles for most of the season, she said she felt most teams saw her as an easy win. And against a top-seeded team, she knew the Wildcats were bringing talented players.

Astorino said she just kept hitting the ball to shake away the doubt. As she scored winners she gained confidence and eventually posted the win.

Soleimany and Simon believed they would beat West Ranch's No. 1 team of Malory Martin and Riley O'Neil in the final round. The Lightning were tied, 3-3, after the first round, 6-6, after the second. Sage's No. 3 doubles team knew it had to play its best set of the season to make a difference.

"There was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to lose," Simon said. "So we went out and made it happen."

Sophomore Liana Korber, the Lightning's No. 1 singles player, and No. 3 Kimberly Brown, a sophomore, earned a win each, against Park.

After Astorino's win, the Lightning bounced, cheered and celebrated together.

"This is a moment you live for," Soleimany said. "You live for these times when you have a chance to show what a team we are and what type of school we are."

Now, the Sage girls want to show it against St. Margaret's, which last beat the Lightning, 10-8, at The Tennis Club on Oct. 29.

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