With Sage Hill School in control in the fourth set, four points away from extending its girls' volleyball season, the opposing team sent the wrong player to serve. One player from San Diego Cathedral Catholic yelled at her teammate behind the service line, saying, "Drop the ball!"
It turned out that Sage Hill almost ended up dropping the ball.
The Lightning allowed the Dons to force a decisive fifth set, but Sage Hill survived a near collapse. The team opened a new tournament on Tuesday, three days after winning the CIF Southern Section Division 3A title, and Sage Hill barely continued its season.
Third-seeded Sage Hill beat No. 6 Cathedral Catholic, 19-25, 25-13, 25-23, 25-27, 15-11, in the first round of the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III playoffs.
The match began shaky for Sage Hill, which dropped its first set of the postseason. A shaky ending appeared in store for the Lightning after Cathedral Catholic rallied from a 21-17 deficit to steal the fourth set.
Before the start of the fifth set, Coach Dan Thomassen told his Sage Hill players to forget about the previous set. They responded by jumping out to a 9-3 lead.
Sage Hill (27-5) held off a tough Cathedral Catholic side and moved on to the next round to face a familiar opponent, No. 7 Crean Lutheran (22-7), on Saturday at 7 p.m. Crean Lutheran is the same team the Lightning swept to claim the CIF Southern Section Division 3A championship last Saturday and the same team the Lightning shared the Academy League title with during the regular season.
A week later, the two teams are battling for their first CIF State Southern California Regional finals appearance, the precursor to the state championship. The matchup is at Sage Hill and it will be the fourth between Sage Hill and Crean Lutheran this year.
"Our hearts [are] pumping right now," Thomassen said after his team outlasted Cathedral Catholic (16-16), which is from the CIF San Diego Section. "That's one of those matches that could've gone either way. We got off to a great start in Game 5 and that's huge. Our girls made all the plays. The mistakes we made in Game 4, a couple of missed serves [late], we cleaned [them] up in Game 5."
Junior outside hitters Kekai Whitford and Halland McKenna led the way for the Lightning. Whitford recorded 19 kills and 20 digs and McKenna finished with 25 kills and 18 digs. Junior setter Maddy Abbott amassed 56 assists.
Whitford, after Cathedral Catholic stuffed her on back-to-back shots and then on another one late, came on strong at the end. The Dons had cut the lead to 11-9 in the fifth set because of combined blocks by Madison Linxwiler and Ivey Schmitt, then again at 12-11.
Whitford answered down the stretch. She pounded the last two winners, one down the line and she clinched it with a kill at match point.
"We didn't panic," said Thomassen, whose team served strong against Cathedral Catholic, with Whitford and Juliette Singarella producing service aces in the fifth set. "We knew we were going to have to make a lot of adjustments against this team because we didn't know them very well."
Sage Hill knows its next opponent quite well. Crean Lutheran is the last team to knock off the Lightning, coming at Crean Lutheran on Oct. 29.