Comeback falls short as Sage Hill can't repeat as CIF champion

CYPRESS — Same two girls' volleyball teams. Same location. Same objective. Same number of sets.

Almost the same result.

Sage Hill School came close to beating St. Margaret's in a CIF Southern Section title match for the second straight year.

The rival private schools met in the Division 3-A finale at Cypress College on Saturday. The only difference from last year, beside the higher division, was that the Tartans held on at the end.

Top-seeded St. Margaret's edged the third-seeded Lightning, 25-20, 25-22, 11-25, 17-25, 15-8. The Tartans' third victory against Sage Hill this year proved to be the most difficult, when it looked like it might be the easiest.

The Tartans (26-3) took the first two sets and were on their way to a sweep. In the first two sets, Sage Hill Coach Dan Thomassen said the Tartans were a step quicker and scrappier than the Lightning (21-6).

"Then we started showing our real game," said Thomassen, who saw his team take the third and fourth sets to force a decisive fifth set. "We just kept getting a little bit better.

"It's one of those where you get to a fifth game and you never know what's going to happen."

The Lightning finished second to the Tartans in the Academy League. They now finished runner-up to St. Margaret's in a section title match for the first time.

Sage Hill had won its previous two section title appearances, both under Thomassen and coming against the Tartans. The Tartans held the hardware this time at the end, led by Gigi Morally (17 kills and 16 digs) and Peighton McRobie (14 kills and 22 digs).

In the opening frame, St. Margaret's took a 4-1 lead. Two service aces by McRobie helped with the fast start.

Things began to go Sage Hill's way once they began to return the serve. The Lightning tied it at 8, but never managed to go ahead. The set was tight the rest of the way. The Tartans' biggest lead was three, but the Lightning narrowed it to 18-17 after Maggie Danner blasted a kill that knocked Morally down.

St. Margaret's called a timeout, a move by Coach Susie Maga to settle down her team. Near the bench, Morally and the Tartans gathered themselves. When they returned to the court, the Tartans closed things out.

The Tartans went on a 7-3 run. Their serving game, back-to-back aces by Ashley Torok, and Sage Hill's inability to stop Emily Miller down the stretch gave the Tartans the edge early in the match.

The momentum stayed with St. Margaret's in the next set. The first four points in the second set belonged to the Tartans and they never looked back.

Morally proved to be too much for Sage Hill to handle. She produced four kills and stuffed a shot in the second set. Twice, Thomassen called timeouts, looking for his Lightning to respond.

Down, 18-10, Sage Hill showed a little life, cutting the deficit in half with an ace by Kekai Whitford and kills by Juliette Singarella and Danner. The Lightning got within three twice, and then two. Danner's kill cut St. Margaret's lead to 24-22.

At set point, the Tartans went back to Morally. The 5-foot-10 outside hitter finished things, slamming a kill toward the back line.

Sage Hill didn't go home quietly. The Lightning avoided losing in three to the Tartans for the second time this year.

Danner helped Sage Hill's comeback cause and forced a fourth set. The senior recorded six kills during Sage Hill's 14-4 start to the third set. She finished with nine in the set.

Danner was on fire late, finishing with 23 kills, 10 digs and three blocks.

The team served strong as well, Maddy Abbott dropping two aces and Halland Mckenna and Claudia Noto each had one ace during the impressive beginning to the third set. That was the kind of performance the Lightning needed in the first couple of sets.

The elevated level of play by Sage Hill came late. And it continued early into the fourth set, with the Lightning jumping out to a 4-0 lead.

But three consecutive net violations by the Lightning cooled off the run. They just started another one, a longer one, reeling off five straight points, with Abbott, who collected 56 assists, setting the tempo.

Then everyone on the court seemed to be contributing for the Lightning, from Danner, Abbott, Whitford and Singarella blasting shots, to Brenna Van Hoogenstyn, Danner and Whitford blocking shots. Sage Hill was forcing a decisive fifth set.

When it came to the final set, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead on one of Mckenna's 10 kills. That was the last time they were ahead, though, as the Tartans went on to claim their second section crown in three years.

"I got to hand it to St. Margaret's. [The Tartans] got the momentum back," Thomassen said. "We couldn't quite get the early momentum in the [fifth set] that helped us in the comeback. I think if we play them again tomorrow, it might go a different way.

"It didn't end the way we wanted, but I'm so proud of this team."

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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