CLAREMONT — Coach A.G. Longoria gathered his Sage Hill School girls' tennis team for one more photo-op. The backdrop was the tennis court where the team's season just ended Monday.
Longoria asked each player to smile at the camera. It was hard for most of them to crack a genuine one after coming oh so close to stunning rival St. Margaret's in the CIF Southern Section Division III final at The Claremont Club.
Fifth-seeded Sage Hill and fourth-seeded St. Margaret's were even through 18 sets. Games won decided the finale and the Tartans held a 69-60 edge, claiming their third straight section title.
St. Margaret's avoided the upset and kept its 72-match winning streak intact. Sage Hill put up a fight in the fourth meeting against its Academy League foe.
Beating a talented team like Sage Hill (17-5) that many times in a season is not easy.
The Lightning led for much of the finale, going up, 9-7, in sets late. Two sets remained and they were in singles action, an area in which the Tartans are the strongest.
All the Lightning needed to do was split the sets and the section crown belonged to them for the first time in five years. They had a chance to avenge their 2008 loss to St. Margaret's in the Division IV section final.
The Lightning did not come close.
The Tartans finished off the Lightning, getting 6-1 victories from No. 2 singles player Zoe Odekerk and No. 3 singles player Molly Brooks. St. Margaret's capped a 22-0 season.
St. Margaret's was almost flawless in singles play, losing just one of nine sets. Sage Hill dominated doubles, winning eight of nine. The Tartans' margin of victory in singles outweighed the Lightning's in doubles.
When it came down to the final two sets, Coach David Boyle felt good about St. Margaret's chances.
"The fact that we did beat them three times in a row and the fact that we've been here [before] … I think that gave us the psychological advantage going into that last round," Boyle said. "We've been here. We know what it takes."
Longoria brought a relatively young team to the section final. The Lightning's previous trip was two years ago.
Two members of that team remembered it well. That final appearance was the first for Katie Bick and Rian Billingsley, both freshmen back then.
In their junior year, they saw Sage Hill fall short to the Tartans again. Bick and Billingsley performed well together at No. 1 doubles, earning 6-1, 6-1, 6-0 victories.
The duo gave Sage Hill a 9-6 lead before the final three singles sets. The Lightning built a 58-51 lead in games.
"It was tough," Billingsley said of losing another close section finale to St. Margaret's, which beat the Lightning, 10-8, two years ago. "We've got next year.
"We're getting closer [to defeating St. Margaret's]. I think [for] a lot of our players, it's their first time here, so I think they just gained a lot of drive from that and they're willing to come back next year."
The Lightning have a legit shot to return to their fifth section finale since 2005.
Along with Bick and Billingsley, doubles players, sophomore Lauren Hsu and junior Ava Soleimany, are expected to return next season.
Hsu teamed up with senior Devyn Billingsley to sweep at No. 2 doubles. Soleimany and senior Olivia Simon took two of three sets at No. 3 doubles.
Sage Hill's top three singles players, sophomore Liana Korber, junior Casey Astorino and sophomore Kimberly Brown, should be back. Korber became the team's lone winner in singles when she knocked off Brooks, 6-4.
Korber's mother tried to stop herself from watching the set. She looked and sounded nervous and you might understand why.
Brooks tried to rally in the same fashion she did against Brown earlier.
Brown took a 4-3 lead before Brooks battled. She won three straight games to win, 6-4. Letting one get away proved costly for the Lightning, who went into the match knowing they were overmatched in singles.
The Tartans' one-two punch of Tiffany Cheng and Odekerk is practically unbeatable.
"They have an exceptional group of young ladies," Longoria said. "We just improved every time [against them]. We played them the first time [in league] at their place [and lost], 12-6. The next time we played at our place and we worked on our doubles. We lost, 10-8. We lose … now in games. We had the right strategy. We had the right lineup. We got everything that we wanted. We needed either Kim to beat Molly or we needed to sweep the doubles.
"If we had another three weeks to play them again, I think we can get one more set, possibly."