In September, Coach A.G. Longoria scheduled a trip for his Sage Hill School girls' tennis team to Stevenson Ranch. There was a reason for driving 80 miles north to play West Ranch.
"I knew they were going to be a good team," said Longoria, whose team lost to West Ranch in games, 96-90, after the two teams were even, 9-9, in sets. "I wanted my team to experience the conditions up there. They're on a higher altitude. It's windier and dustier up there. The ball plays a lot faster."
Longoria and the Lightning are planning to travel to West Ranch again. To get to the CIF Southern Section Division III title match, Longoria said Sage Hill has to go through West Ranch.
The Lightning learned Monday that they are on the same side of the bracket as top-seeded West Ranch (15-0). Sage Hill (13-4) earned the No. 4 seed, it was revealed when the section playoff pairings were announced.
Sage Hill's run at a second straight section final appearance begins Thursday. The Lightning play host to Yucaipa (12-3) in the first round at The Tennis Club in Newport Beach at 2 p.m.
Sage Hill is one of two local teams looking to return to a section title match and take care of unfinished business. Newport Harbor is the other.
The Sailors received the No. 3 seed in Division II. Newport Harbor (16-1) opens the first round Thursday at 2 p.m. at home, where they play the wild-card-round winner between Temple City (7-11) and Temecula Chaparral (9-8).
The other local team in the playoffs is Costa Mesa. The Mustangs (6-4) are at Santa Margarita (8-9) in a Division I first-round match, Thursday at 2 p.m.
Sage Hill and Newport Harbor are the two local teams best equipped to make a deep run.
The Sailors capped their fourth straight Sunset League title, their second going undefeated. Five starters return from last season's team, which lost to San Marino, 11-7, in the Division II finale.
Senior Blake Bakkila plays No. 1 singles and sophomore Natalie Cernius No. 2 singles. The other three returning players compete in doubles: senior Christina Young, who is on No. 1 doubles with her twin sister, Robin, and senior Mindy Wheeler and junior Megan Bathen, partners in No. 2 doubles, are the other two returners.
"We're going to play every round like we're playing the No. 1 team," said Newport Harbor Coach Kristen Case, whose doubles teams this year were strong in league play.
Sage Hill is going to need its doubles teams to perform well, if it plans to knock off West Ranch in the semifinals.
Longoria said his top doubles team of seniors Katie Bick and Rian Billingsley has the experience. The duo led the way last year, along with No. 1 singles player Liana Korber, who is back as a junior.
Longoria has senior Casey Astorino and junior Lauren Hsu playing No. 2 doubles. Senior Ava Soleimany is his No. 2 singles player. These players were around last season, when the Lightning met rival St. Margaret's and lost in games in the section title match at The Claremont Club.
Longoria wants to see St. Margaret's again — in the section final. The Tartans (16-0) are the No. 2 seed after finishing first in the Academy League, ahead of Sage Hill.
"St. Margaret's hasn't lost [since the semifinals of the 2007 playoffs] and [the Tartans are] going for four straight [section title wins]," Longoria said. "We want to get another shot at them."