NEWPORT COAST — The last time the Sage Hill School girls' soccer team played host to rival St. Margaret's, the game was scoreless until the Tartans struck in the final minutes.
St. Margaret's Coach Johnny Marmelstein remembers the game last year well. He said before Thursday's Academy League opener that he once again expected a battle.
"I don't think we'll ever get two easy games against Sage Hill," Marmelstein said. "It'll never happen."
This time the Tartans did not wait until the end to start scoring goals. They scored twice in the first 15 minutes of the contest and blanked Sage Hill, 3-0.
St. Margaret's, the defending CIF Southern Section Division VI champion and going for its fourth straight outright league title, took the upper hand over its rival. A player who did not live too far away made it happen.
Tartans senior forward Katie Donahue, a Newport Beach resident, streaked through the midfield in the 11th minute. She fed the ball up to her left to Regan Anderson, who crossed it in front of the goal. Senior forward Katie Fragapane knocked it in, and the Tartans had an early lead.
The Tartans (4-4-3) extended it four minutes later, when McKenna Marmelstein scored off a corner kick. Donahue, a Stanford commit who scored that deciding goal last year, said getting off to a fast start was important.
"We always expect a fight from them, especially here at their field," said Donahue, last year's Division VI Player of the Year. "We know that this is probably the biggest game of our league season."
St. Margaret's has several other Newport Beach residents, including Natalie and Alexa Barbaresi, Emma Morris and CdM resident Angelika Robertson. Natalie Barbaresi, a senior, made plays from the outside back position. She and Donahue executed several nice give-and-go plays.
"We've been playing together for four years," Donahue said. "I've been playing with Natalie a long time. It's nice to have her especially come up on offense, even though she's an outside back."
Sage Hill (5-3-2) did not get down. The Lightning kept battling. Their best chance in the first half came after a nice run down the field by sophomore Meg Crade earned a corner kick. Senior Noosha Deravi placed the kick right in front of the goal, but St. Margaret's headed the ball out of danger.
The visitors took the 2-0 lead into halftime, before scoring again in the 59th minute. McKenna Marmelstein crossed the ball to Alexis Leon, whose straightaway shot from just outside the box sneaked in just below the crossbar.
Still, Sage Hill first-year head coach Catie Chase was pleased with her defense, anchored by senior goalie Alexa Thomas (nine saves) and also featuring players like seniors Caroline Grant and Sanna Taskinen, junior Campbell Moore and freshman Kekai Whitford.
The Lightning are improved. They had just one senior a year ago. Now they have seven, including forward Maddie Culberson, midfielder Rannah Dabiri and goalie Paige Krueger. Culberson was the team's leading scorer last year.
Chase, 25, said the transition to head coach has been smooth. She was the junior varsity coach at Sage last year.
"The seniors have been great," said Chase, a walk-on coach who played in high school locally at Woodbridge and in college at Western Kentucky. "They're huge leaders, on and off the field. Our main goal as a team is, of course, to do well, but at same time making sure we're giving it all we have. I think we did that tonight, but unfortunately we just didn't get the results we wanted."
The Lightning kept trying to score. Dabiri kept the pressure on at the end, colliding with St. Margaret's goalie Ellie Schwartz at one point after a long, bouncing free kick. But St. Margaret's, which already has more losses than last year's team that went 27-3-2, held firm.
"The thing is, playing such a tough nonleague schedule, the game is so fast," Johnny Marmelstein said. "We've been playing at a really fast speed. Finally, now coming and playing an opponent in league, we're moving the ball the way I thought we would. We really had a good outing today. It was worth not having a great record. It helped us."
Sage Hill finished third in the Academy League last year. The league is again expected to be tough, with Crean Lutheran also improved.
But if the Lightning also keep improving, Chase has to like her team's chances.
"We talked about playing as a unit and working together with one another, and we did that," Chase said. "We talked to each other, we rotated when we needed to rotate. That team defense and that high pressure really gave us those few opportunities we did have."