Going into Saturday's release of the CIF Southern Section girls' volleyball playoff pairings, Coach Dan Thomassen expected his Sage Hill School team to earn the top seed in Division 3-A.
For much of the season, coaches voted the Lightning No. 1 in the Division 3-A poll. That is where Sage Hill ended up, despite sharing first place in the Academy League with Crean Lutheran.
Sage Hill and Crean Lutheran split their head-to-head matches, but Thomassen said Sage Hill's strength of schedule put the Lightning over the top.
As a result, Sage Hill is a No. 1 seed in the postseason for the first time in the program's history.
Sage Hill looks to make a third straight section final appearance. The Lightning finished runner-up in Division 3-A last year and won the Division 4-AA title two years ago.
Sage Hill is primed to make another run. The Lightning are one of four local schools in the playoffs, the others are Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor and Estancia.
The Sea Kings are the only other local top-four seeded team, receiving a No. 3 in Division 1-AA, the premier division. Newport Harbor is in Division 1-AA as well, while Estancia is in Division 1-A.
Each area program opens the first round of the playoffs on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
The Lightning (21-5) play host to Redlands Arrowhead Christian (9-8), the fifth-place team from the Ambassador League. Thomassen, in his 10th season at the helm of Sage Hill, didn't attend host Arrowhead Christian's 25-13, 25-11, 25-14 sweep of Riverside Ramona in Saturday's wild-card match. He plans to scout the rest of the competition in the later rounds.
Coach Steve Astor, in his first year in charge of CdM, has his Pacific Coast League champion Sea Kings (23-5) starting at home. They face Palos Verdes Peninsula (13-12), the fourth-place team out of the competitive Bay League. The Bay League is home to second-seeded Redondo Union (28-5), last year's runner-up, and Manhattan Beach Mira Costa (22-8), ranked No. 7 in the final Division 1-AA poll.
Newport Harbor (11-20), the third-place team from the Sunset League, travels to Temecula Great Oak (24-1), the Southwestern League Champion and No. 10 team in Division 1-AA. Great Oak's lone setback came against Corona Santiago (33-0), the top seed in Division 2-AA.
Estancia (9-16), the third-place team from the Orange Coast League, plays at Aliso Niguel (21-2). Coach Paul Muñoz' group has a tough one as the Wolverines are the Sea View League champions and ranked No. 9 in Division 1-A.
Each of the local coaches, except for Astor, has their respective teams back in the playoffs.
Thomassen's Sage Hill team is stacked with junior outside hitter Kekai Whitford, senior middle blocker Juliette Singarella, junior setter Maddy Abbott and senior liberos Claudia Noto and Allie Mowrey, both are four-year players. The talent allowed Thomassen to play the program's toughest schedule and the Lightning beat the likes of Santa Margarita (18-14) and Northwood (7-7), teams that made the Division 1-AA playoffs, and Laguna Beach (20-11), the No. 2 seed in Division 1-A.
Astor's Sea Kings rely on junior standout outside hitter Hayley Hodson. She is the lone returning starter from last year's team that reached the semifinals under-then coach Marissa Booker. Astor hopes to guide CdM to its first section title since 2004. Since then, the program, under three different coaches, has qualified four times to section finals, losing each time.
The Sailors have qualified for the postseason in each of Coach Dan Glenn's 28 years. Missing out for the first time seemed like a possibility when Newport Harbor began the year at 3-12, its worst start under Glenn. Nevertheless, the Sailors turned their season around, upsetting Los Alamitos, the No. 1 seed, during a Sunset League match and closing out the regular season at 8-8. Carolyn Bockrath, a senior middle blocker, lifted a young team.
Estancia returns to the playoffs for the fourth straight season with Muñoz. The Eagles have played without sophomore Emma Griffith, one of their best players from a year ago. In June, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that starts in the bones. Her older sister, senior middle blocker Abby Griffith, has led the way for Estancia, which will try to win its first playoff match under Muñoz.