RIVERSIDE — Sage Hill School's Halland McKenna remembered last year's volleyball match at Riverside La Sierra. She called it scary.
Back then, the girls went the distance in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 3A playoffs. Sage Hill rallied from a four-point deficit in the fifth set and survived.
McKenna and the Lightning returned to the same gym on Tuesday night to play another postseason match. They began the semifinals shaky. McKenna's play calmed Sage Hill down and she made sure the Lightning didn't have to stick around La Sierra too long.
Top-seeded Sage Hill is headed to a third straight section finals appearance after it swept La Sierra, 25-18, 25-21, 25-22.
McKenna finished with 11 kills, six service aces and seven digs. Coach Dan Thomassen said his junior outside hitter turned in her best performance of the postseason. In all facets, passing, serving and hitting, McKenna delivered for the Lightning.
There's one more thing she plans to bring to Sage Hill. The section championship is on Friday or Saturday at Cerritos College and against a familiar opponent. The Lightning (25-5) face second-seeded Crean Lutheran (21-6), the school Sage Hill split the Academy League title with this season.
"It's always been the battle with St. Margaret's [in league]. They've always been the ones we want to face, but this year is definitely different," McKenna said. "Going to [Crean Lutheran's] house [on Oct. 29] and letting the [match for our school's first outright league title] slip away [in five sets] is such a motivation for this CIF [match]. We are not leaving that [Cerritos College] gym without a title. There's no sharing."
Every year Sage Hill has shared the Academy League title, it has gone on to claim the section crown.
In the section finale, Sage Hill has topped the team it shared the league championship with during the regular season. The Lightning pulled it off in 2005 and 2011, both times against rival St. Margaret's.
This year's title match is one McKenna is looking forward to after she severely sprained her left ankle during warm-ups of last year's finale. She played through, even though her ankle continued to swell, making her feel like she was anchored to the court.
The Lightning still took St. Margaret's to five sets, before falling. All offseason, McKenna put in the necessary work to get healthy and help Sage Hill return to the section championship for an unprecedented third year in a row.
"Being in a boot for three months after, and then not being able to jump the way she's jumping now, [has pushed her]," Thomassen said. "I think it was a good six to eight months before she was 100%. This is huge for her."
Getting back to the section finals again is a big feat for nine returning players, especially for three seniors. Middle blocker Juliette Singarella, and liberos Claudia Noto and Allie Mowrey are playing for a section title for the third time during their four-year careers at Sage Hill.
Sage Hill earned another shot by getting past a quality opponent in La Sierra (21-6), the River Valley League champion. The Lightning slowed down the Eagles' top weapon, Daisia LaBrie, limiting the junior to seven kills.
Last year, the Lightning faced two LaBries. Kali, the older sister, wasn't around this time because she was lost to graduation. Sage Hill's defense zeroed in on the younger LaBrie, and Singarella (four blocks), with McKenna and Kekai Whitford helping, made it tough on her.
"They focused their block and defense on Daisia, so she just did not get an opportunity to hit on an empty net, even though she moves around quite a bit [and] hits different spots," La Sierra first-year coach Bruce Bartholomew said. "They … took our best hitter away.
"Their serves kept us out of our favorite offense."
McKenna proved to make a difference with her serve.
In a tight second set, McKenna produced five aces. She dropped winners near the back line, off a player's fingertips, even off a player's shoe. McKenna gave Sage Hill a 16-7 lead after it went on an 11-0 run.
When the scoreboard malfunctioned late in the second set, practically giving La Sierra time to regroup, McKenna stopped any threat. She clinched the second set with a kill, doing the same thing at match point.
Maddy Abbott, who recorded 33 assists, went to Whitford (20 kills, 10 digs and two aces) and McKenna for most of the evening. The last ball was McKenna's. She deserved the game ball.