McKenna is mighty for Lightning

At 5-foot-7, Sage Hill School junior Halland McKenna does not tower over many people on the volleyball court.

The height certainly isn't short outside of the gym. It certainly is short, though, for a high school outside hitter, even at a small school like Sage Hill.

McKenna has to play smart, using the angles and picking her spots.

"I definitely think it's placement," she said. "I can't hit like [Sage junior outside] Kekai [Whitford]. Kekai, oh my God, she can knock someone's head off. I can hit anywhere, but it's just that I can't get up that high to hit straight down. Placement is definitely key."

McKenna doesn't play small. Throw her height out the window. On Saturday night, she will be helping the Lightning try to reach a place they've never been before — the CIF State Southern California Division III regional final. Sage Hill plays host to Academy League rival Crean Lutheran in a regional second-round match at 7.

It's the teams' fourth meeting of the season. They split matches during league, sharing the league title, before Sage swept Crean in the CIF Southern Section Division 3A championship match on Nov. 23 at Cypress College.

These big postseason matches are the ones that McKenna, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, enjoys the most. Her competitiveness comes out, and the Lightning (27-5) lean on her for her kills and her passing. She smiles when asked about Saturday's match. She knows that the Saints will be looking for payback.

"There's no doubt about it," McKenna said. "Their fans, their coaches, their players, every single one of them is going to be out to get us. But that's just what motivates us. It's how we approach the game that matters, just having that extra push. It's like [playing against] St. Margaret's. There's that rivalry, there's that drive to do our best in that match."

McKenna certainly is driven. She hasn't done a lot of losing since coming into Sage Hill, notching two CIF titles in three years as a starter for Coach Dan Thomassen's Lightning. Even the final match when Sage came up just short, last year when McKenna was a sophomore, said a lot about her. She said she suffered a Grade 3 left ankle sprain warming up for the Division 3A championship match against St. Margaret's. She played through the pain as the Lightning lost in five tough sets.

The road back hasn't always been easy for McKenna. She was in a boot for nearly three months, stretching into her club season with Laguna Beach Volleyball Club. Even now, she said her explosiveness isn't all the way back.

It's worked out OK for her, though, as she actually is in transition. In the club season coming up, she said she will switch from outside hitter to libero. That latter position is also one she plans to play in college. McKenna said she has verbally committed to Stanford University, though she still has to apply for the prestigious school in January.

"There's nothing like hitting, I'm going to be honest," she said. "It's so fun, and I wish I could do it from here on out. But I've accepted the fact that I'm small, and my position in this volleyball world is libero/defensive specialist. And honestly, I love that too. Anywhere I am on the court, I take it and run.

"It's going to be sad not being able to hit, but I am looking forward to a new position and getting better at the new position, being the best that I can be in defense."

McKenna, who had a match-high 25 kills in the Lightning's five-set regional win over San Diego Section powerhouse Cathedral Catholic on Tuesday, has gotten better with her passing. She said she's taken private lessons in that area. Thomassen said the results have shown in all aspects of her game.

"Sometimes it's assumed that if you're 5-7 and a really high jumper, there's not that many places you can improve," Thomassen said. "She's really worked hard on adding variety to her attack. Her decisions have gotten better … this year she definitely had some pressure on her to perform. She stepped up and played at a really high level on a big night [at the CIF title match]."

Thomassen said that sometimes McKenna is just in a zone with her hitting, but the passing also is very valuable. And her serving also is a big asset.

McKenna stays versatile off the court as well. She's a big beach volleyball player in the summer, and she's been riding horses since she was 2 years old and competes in various equestrian events. She said she's thought in the past about putting her horse riding on hold, but she's never been able to do it.

"If I wasn't doing anything, I'd be bored," she said. "I feel like it all just works out perfectly."

The big equestrian show coming up is in the desert, in Thermal. When she's not in competitions, she rides in Huntington Beach.

"Between volleyball and Huntington, I'm driving a half-hour each way," McKenna said. "[Sage Hill] is right on the toll road. I take the toll road [north] and get to Huntington, and I take the toll road [south] and get to Mission Viejo [for club volleyball practice]. It's pretty convenient."

State Route 73 assists McKenna as she juggles her various activities. The person who assists her on the court, Sage Hill junior setter Maddy Abbott, is also her best friend. McKenna said she's been friends with Abbott since before preschool. They both played volleyball at Harbor Day School before coming to Sage as freshmen.

Thomassen said McKenna, Abbott and Whitford not only push each other, but more importantly, they support each other. With all of them coming back, the Lightning have a dynamite nucleus for next year as well.

"We're already thinking about going out with a bang," McKenna said. "When preseason training comes up in summer, we'll definitely be working as hard if not harder than this year, to be the best next year. I know everyone's thinking that."

It's a scary thought for opponents. Another great thought for McKenna is making history, if Sage can beat Crean for the third time this season on Saturday night. Two years ago, the Lightning were bounced in the second round of regionals by La Jolla Country Day.

"We can make Sage Hill history," McKenna said. "I think it's great. I think it's pretty notable. We just have been getting really strong players, people with drive. It's not like this is just a P.E. credit.

"People really want to win, and I think that's really special about Sage. Sage is so academically challenging, so for us to have a team like this, I just think it really says something about the people who come here, the student-athletes that we have on our team."

That's big-picture stuff from Sage Hill's relatively small sparkplug.

Halland McKenna

Born: July 19, 1996

Hometown: Laguna Beach

Height: 5-foot-7

Sport: Volleyball

Year: Junior

Coach: Dan Thomassen

Favorite food: Tacos

Favorite movie: "Bridesmaids"

Favorite athletic moment: Helping Sage Hill win the CIF Southern Section Division 3A title this year, sweeping league rival Crean Lutheran in the final.

Week in review: McKenna had 14 kills, 10 digs and two service aces as the Lightning swept Crean Lutheran, 25-18, 25-21, 25-17, to win CIF on Nov. 23 at Cerritos College. She also had 11 kills, seven digs and six aces in a three-set semifinal win at Riverside La Sierra.

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