VISALIA — Sage Hill School athletes wear jackets that are black, with the word "Courage" on the right sleeve.
Members of the Lightning girls' volleyball team lived up to that ideal time and again Tuesday night in the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III championship match.
After making the long drive to play at top-seeded Visalia Central Valley Christian, the No. 3-seeded Lightning discovered a team that was much bigger and had a packed gymnasium with raucous fans. In every set Sage fell behind, yet it managed to come back, yes, courageously.
And while the host Cavaliers claimed a 25-23, 25-21, 20-25, 25-23 victory to end Sage's season, it was the Lightning who were able to make the 225-mile drive back home with tears in their eyes, but with their collective head held high after advancing to the regional championship match for the first time in program history.
"Their size and their height presented a problem," said Sage Coach Dan Thomassen, speaking of CVC's trio of middle blockers Lindsey Calvin (6-foot-1), Hailey Hilvers (6-1) and Taylor Van Den Berg (6-0), who combined for 34 kills. "They made some big plays, some big digs when it mattered, and they passed well too. They're a very skilled, very experienced team.
"We were right there in Game 1, and I thought the girls did a great job of putting it out of their minds and moving on to the next game. We came back in Game 2 and had a chance there too. Eventually, if you get behind enough times it's going to come back to bite you. [But] we didn't get behind because we weren't playing well, it was because they were a great team and they made some great plays blocking and placing their shots."
Sage Hill (28-6), the CIF Southern Section Division 3A champion, fell behind 15-8 in the first set, but battled all the way back to 23-23 before Hilvers, a sophomore, hit back-to-back kills to end it. The Lightning also fell into a 7-2 hole in the second set, but this time they were unable to come all the way back.
The Lightning fought back to win the third set, and were again down 7-2 in the fourth set before rallying behind some tough serving from junior Halland McKenna.
McKenna, who finished with a match-high 21 kills, four service aces and 21 digs, caught fire. She served five straight points, including two aces, as Sage grabbed a 17-16 lead. But Central Valley Christian (37-4) rallied to take a 21-18 lead, prompting a Lightning timeout.
Sage again rallied to 22-all, on an ace from junior Kekai Whitford. But Calvin came up with a kill, then a block, to give the Cavaliers match point. McKenna answered with a kill, but then Calvin's kill into the open corner finished off the match.
"They were an amazing team," Calvin, a junior who had seven blocks in the match, said of the Lightning. "[They were] tough, battled the whole time. We just knew we had to dig a little bit deeper than them, and in the end, we did … With our size we were able to get blocks at key times. Both their outsides [McKenna and Whitford] have amazing hops. They can jump out of the gym, but at the same time, our height just gives us that little extra something that jumping can't. In the end, maybe it was that little bit that pushed us over."
Both teams received medals for each player, as well as a plaque for making the Southern California regional finals. CVC Coach Meghan Warkentin sat on a chair a few minutes after the match, looking a bit spent, but it is her alma mater that advances to the CIF State Division III final on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Santiago Canyon College. CVC will play Northern California champion San Jose Valley Christian.
"Sage Hill is an awesome team," Warkentin said. "They're extremely disciplined … We knew we had to make this about a game of the middles. That meant we had to get the ball to our middles. It comes down to our defense making it happen, and our middles expecting the ball."
Whitford finished with 19 kills, four digs and five aces for the Lightning, and junior Maddy Abbott had six kills and dished out 44 assists. Senior libero Allie Mowrey had 24 digs and four aces.
The serving helped Sage stay in the match, as the Lightning owned a 15-3 advantage in aces. Thomassen said it was one of his team's best serving performances of the season. Senior middle blocker Juliette Singarella (three blocks) also had a pair of aces.
Mowrey, one of three captains along with Abbott and senior Claudia Noto, said she felt like the Lightning represented well despite the loss.
"We had a slow start, but I feel so great knowing that we came out and battled point-by-point and were able to fight through the fourth game," Mowrey said. "I'm completely satisfied with that. I'm proud of our team … We haven't really had a matchup like this during the regular season, [but] I think we really liked the challenge. I think that was proved through our performance in the third and fourth games."
Not only was this year's Sage Hill team the most successful in program history, but Thomassen said it also was his hardest-working squad. And the Lightning could be back in this position next year, as they graduate just four seniors.
One of those seniors, Mowrey, started to tear up a bit when asked what she would remember about playing for this team.
"It's been an amazing ride," Mowrey said. "We had such a strong team bond … I've never played with a group of girls this great."
Or this courageous.