NORWALK — The Sage Hill School girls' volleyball program has found its secret recipe for winning CIF Southern Section titles. Share the Academy League crown during the regular season and then beat the team you split it with in the section finale.
For the third time in Sage Hill's 14-year-old history, it has claimed a section championship.
Crean Lutheran spoiled Sage Hill's attempt at finishing perfect in league last month, but no one would deny the Lighting a perfect ending in the Division 3A playoffs.
Sage Hill's unprecedented third straight section finals appearance concluded with it on top, as the top-seeded Lightning prevailed against No. 2 Crean Lutheran, 25-18, 25-21, 25-17, at Cerritos College on Saturday night.
Beating Crean Lutheran was the ideal way for the Lightning (26-5) to close things out.
"That wasn't the plan," Sage Hill Coach Dan Thomassen said with a laugh when asked if sharing the league title was a good thing. "That [loss in five sets at Crean Lutheran on Oct. 29] stung a lot for our girls. We did some real bonding after that, and I think it made us grow as a team.
"Definitely [our only five-set setback of the year motivated us], knowing that we didn't give our best match at [Crean Lutheran]. That was our whole goal [going into Saturday], win or lose, we wanted to play our best, not perfect, but just our best. Our girls were mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually absolutely dialed in and it showed."
Thomassen led Sage Hill back to the Division 3A finale and the school won it in style, capping it with its fifth sweep in the playoffs. Sage Hill swept every postseason opponent for the first time, quite a feat after it lost to St. Margaret's in five sets in last year's finale.
But a year ago, heading into the championship, Sage Hill didn't split the league title and one of its top hitters, Halland McKenna, severely injured her ankle during warm-ups. She looked more than ready against Crean Lutheran (21-7).
The last time McKenna faced the Saints, Thomassen said his outside hitter didn't have one of her best matches.
The junior made up for it in the rematch. McKenna recorded 14 kills, 10 digs and two service aces. She energized the Lightning, producing five kills in the opening set that featured big blocks by middle blockers Sophia Mossman and Juliette Singarella, and outside hitter Giordana Ricci.
Lina Aluzri served strong for the Lightning, contributing to a 9-0 run. Sage Hill took a 16-4 lead after the spurt. When Crean Lutheran responded, getting as close as 20-15, with outside hitter Katie Kyckelhahn and middle blocker Abby Allen firing away, the Lightning held off the Saints.
McKenna pounded a kill and then Kekai Whitford got involved with a kill of her own. At set point, McKenna clinched it for the Lightning with an ace.
"She was lights out," said Thomassen, before saying the same thing about the rest of his 14 players. "[I'm in] a little disbelief. I knew our girls were going to be good tonight, but I didn't know we were going to be this good. We had so many girls that either played very good or absolutely awesome."
Whitford, a junior outside hitter, performed at a high level, finishing with 16 kills and 10 digs, as did junior setter Maddy Abbott, who amassed 41 assists, to go with eight digs and a kill.
Abbott seemed to go Whitford's way in a tight second set. And Whitford delivered by hammering six kills, three of those winners coming down the stretch.
The third set began with no side going ahead by more than one point, until Whitford's crosscourt kill put the Lightning ahead, 10-8. Sage Hill went on to outscore the Saints, 11-5.
Everyone began to contribute for the Lightning, especially the four seniors on the team, liberos Allie Mowrey and Claudia Noto, and opposite Sophie Gordon and Singarella.
Mowrey, who tallied 21 digs, was everywhere. Gordon used her left arm to record one of her five kills and Singarella added one of her three kills and one of her four blocks.
Sage Hill wanted to finish Crean Lutheran in three sets. Whitford even chased after balls, striking them before colliding with the referee's ladder.
"She runs into things," said Thomassen, whose team awaits its next opponent, coming in the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III playoffs next week.. "She's under control, but she goes so hard that she just bounces off things and people."
Whitford and the rest of her Sage Hill teammates bounced Crean Lutheran from the stage that mattered the most on Saturday, first place.