Girls' Volleyball: Sage tops Tartans in five

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Sage Hill School had not beaten rival St. Margaret's in girls' volleyball since winning the CIF Southern Section Division 4-AA title in 2011.

The Lightning lost to the Tartans three times last year, twice in league and in the Division 3-A title match.

But it's a new and maybe improved Lightning squad. Sage Hill is now the top-ranked team in Division 3-A, with St. Margaret's at No. 7.

"It's a new year," said senior libero Allie Mowrey, one of three captains along with fellow senior Claudia Noto and junior setter Maddy Abbott. "We try not to let what happened last year affect this year."

What happened Thursday night was that the Lightning showed that they could scrap on the road. They rallied for a 23-25, 25-15, 22-25, 25-19, 15-9 victory that kept them alone in first place in the Academy League.

Sage Hill (15-4, 5-0 in league) had not lost a set in league before Thursday's match. But the Lightning found themselves down, two sets to one, before finding a way to prevail.

They did so with tough serving from Mowrey and Abbott, as well as solid middle blocker play, in the fifth set. Senior Juliette Singarella helped the Lightning on three straight points, recording a kill, a block then another kill as the Lightning opened up an 8-2 advantage.

St. Margaret's (8-9, 4-2) pulled within two points, but another block from Singarella (11 kills) and fellow senior Sophie Gordon gave Sage a 10-7 lead and the momentum back. The Lightning eventually won the match on yet another block, from Mossman.

"She has just completely stepped in every way, as a leader, as a middle," Coach Dan Thomassen said of Singarella, who was teary-eyed after the match. "Emotionally, you guys can see her out there, she's bouncing around. She was one of those ones, her serve was a little off today and she made up for it in other ways. She played good defense … and had some big swings. They had a big block on her, and she found a way to get kills."

Junior outside hitter Halland McKenna led Sage with 20 kills and 20 digs, as well as five service aces. Abbott dished out 46 assists. Junior outside Kekai Whitford came on near the end of the match to finish with 10 kills and three blocks.

Six of Whitford's kills came in sets four and five, with the Lightning facing the possible loss.

"The seniors," Whitford said when asked how she turned it around. "I mean, we believe in one point at a time, and this was for the seniors. This was their last time here … [Singarella] was on fire."

Junior outside hitter Emily Miller led St. Margaret's with nine kills, and junior Peighton McRobie and sophomore Gabrielle Benck had eight each. Newport Beach resident Charlotte Duran, a sophomore, is the Tartans' primary setter, and had a service ace as well.

Coach Susie Maga said she was proud of her team, which has been struggling this season and was without the services of injured starting middle blocker Brianna Vandenburg. Her twin sister, Alexa, started instead for St. Margaret's.

"We came out and played a little Tartan volleyball [tonight]," Maga said.

But it was the Lightning that still struck at the end for the victory.

"I think our girls have so much history of being solid and making good decisions at the right times in matches," Thomassen said. "We've got a really good bank of confidence from training, from big matches we played early in the season. They're used to this atmosphere, and [we were] a little lucky. We missed some serves, which we've got to work on.

"We definitely were tight, but I think when it mattered we were making plays on the court. Very, very composed after mistakes, which is so easy to talk about but really hard to do."

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