SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Sage Hill School boys' volleyball coach Dan Thomassen called Tuesday's first-place showdown with St. Margaret's one of the most exciting matches of his volleyball career.
The Lightning players may need a bit more time to gain that perspective.
Sage Hill battled from behind seemingly all match long. But the host Tartans ultimately did so when it mattered most.
St. Margaret's saved two match points in the fifth set and won the rivalry match, 25-21, 22-25, 25-21, 18-25, 16-14. With a match to go, St. Margaret's (11-12, 8-1 in league) has clinched its third straight outright Academy League title.
Sage Hill (9-15, 6-3) drops into a second-place tie with Crean Lutheran South, though the Lightning would own the tiebreaker because they've won both head-to-head matches.
Thomassen said the way it unfolded Tuesday showed a lot about his scrappy team, which has been playing recently without senior middle blocker Randall Mycorn (sprained ankle).
"Even when we were down, our guys were very, very confident that we could win in [sets] four and five," Thomassen said. "I was just really impressed with their composure. They made outstanding play after outstanding play. You get it to 14-12 in the fifth, and that's a great spot to be in. It just didn't work out."
Sage junior outside hitter Chris Zadra, who finished with 23 kills, had a blast down the near sideline on the first match point at 14-12. The referee ruled it just wide.
"I thought it was in, and [Zadra] said he thought it was in," Thomassen said. "But there were a lot of close calls that could have gone either way. It was just a really even match."
A Lightning hit then went off the antenna, knotting the score at 14-14. St. Margaret's sophomore Chandler Desforges, a Newport Beach resident, got a clean block on the next point to give the Tartans their first match point, and they converted it when senior Zack Stoddard got his ninth kill off a block.
Senior Arya Amirhekmat had a team-high 10 kills for St. Margaret's, ranked No. 10 in the CIF Southern Section Division IV poll. The Tartans won the Division V title last year but graduated a lot of talent from that team.
"We have a young team, and we rely on everyone," Stoddard said. "It really creates a good team atmosphere. Most of the games [Tuesday against Sage Hill] we were ahead. We realized we really just have to push for it and try our hardest if we want to win. That's what our coach has been telling us this whole time; things aren't going to come easy."
Junior outside Cole Kirby had a match-high 26 kills for the Lightning. Sophomore setter Kent Kawaguchi had 47 assists and also came up big offensively with five kills and four service aces to go with two blocks.
Three of Kawaguchi's aces came in succession in the second set, helping Sage come back from an early deficit after losing the first set with five service errors.
Sage Hill fell behind 17-10 in the third set, battled back to within one at 19-18 but couldn't get closer. They led throughout the fourth set but again battled back in the fifth set, rallying from a 9-6 deficit on three kills from Zadra and two from Kirby.
Sage Hill had swept St. Margaret's in the teams' first league meeting March 31, but Coach Jeremy Dailey said junior middle blocker Nick Adams was limited due to sickness in that match. Adams had eight kills in Tuesday's match.
Thomassen said he hopes to get Mycorn back by the first or second round of CIF.
"I think our guys are ready for the playoffs," he said.
Sage Hill finishes off league play Thursday at Whitney.