Abbott set up Sage's success

When she's not playing volleyball or hanging out with her friends, Maddy Abbott enjoys to write.

Abbott, a junior at Sage Hill School, is the sports editor for the Lightning school newspaper, "The Bolt."

"There's a lot of volleyball in our school paper, let me tell you," said Abbott, laughing. "We get a lot of press. I think people get sick of hearing about it."

But there's no doubt about one thing — the press is well-deserved.

This fall, Abbott has gone from the story-teller to the story.

The success of Abbott and the Lightning girls' volleyball team has been big news on campus this year. Abbott, a setter and one of three team captains with seniors Allie Mowrey and Claudia Noto, was instrumental in Sage Hill winning its third CIF title in program history and advancing to the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III championship match for the first time.

Sage fell there, in four sets at top-seeded Visalia Central Valley Christian on Tuesday, yet the No. 3-seeded Lightning went down swinging.

That was literally true of Abbott. Yes, she dished out 44 assists, most of those to the big swingers on the outside, juniors Halland McKenna and Kekai Whitford. But Abbott was third on the team with six kills as well. Four times, she successfully executed a dump kill, catching CVC off-guard. Twice, she won jousts at the net.

Coach Dan Thomassen knows he has a strong, smart and versatile volleyball player in Abbott, a three-year starter for Sage at setter. What's more striking to him is Abbott as a person. She's very well-rounded in her interests as well, as she is a member of the Sage Hill student ambassadors and honor committee programs. Abbott, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, carries a 4.2 grade-point average.

"If you sit down with Maddy for five minutes or less, you'll find out that her character and her integrity are absolutely as good as it gets," Thomassen said. "My first few conversations with her, it took no time to realize that she was going to be a cornerstone of anything we were going to try to do, just because of her attitude and work ethic. Some kids seem to be in a good mood all the time, and I think she's genuinely in a good mood, especially when she's playing volleyball. She literally loves coming to practice ... and she balances that with intensity as well. She loves competing. She really likes those clutch moments."

That's a trait that was true of Abbott's father, Jim, as well. He never misses one of his daughter's matches. This year, he was on the court filming for the team.

From the stands, Jim just appears to be another dad to Maddy and her younger sister, Ella, who is a seventh grader at Harbor Day School and plays water polo. But of course, he is an inspiration to many. He didn't let being born without a right hand stop him from pitching for the University of Michigan and helping Team USA finish first at the 1988 Summer Olympics. The left-hander went on to a 10-year career in Major League Baseball, six of those with the then-California Angels.

He also remains active in the community. Twice last year he spoke to Sage Hill's students, and he stays involved with KidWorks, a Santa Ana-based non-profit charity that serves at-risk children, teens and families.

But, to Maddy Abbott, he's just "dad." He's part of a big cheering section at Sage matches, which also includes Maddy's mother, Dana, and her grandparents.

"There's never any pressure or anything," Maddy Abbott said. "He's always super-supportive. If anything, I'm really proud to have him in the stands watching. I really enjoy sharing that bond with him, being able to talk sports. It's a really important thing in our family, obviously. We do a lot of things sports-related, which is fun. I wouldn't have it any other way.

"I just think of him as my dad. I don't think of him as such an inspiration, and I really should. He's constantly inspiring me and giving me little snippets of wise words and quotes. His experiences are honestly so cool. I'm so lucky to have that chance to constantly have him in my presence. I know a lot of people shy away from asking about it, because they think I don't like talking about it, but I'm really proud of everything that he's accomplished. He's such an inspiration to other people, and also me."

One thing Maddy knows is how to work hard. On the volleyball court, she has worked hard to perfect her craft. Her club coach at Prime Volleyball Club, UC Irvine assistant Jamie Morrison, has worked with her on strategy. So has Sage Hill assistant coach Megan Munce, who played setter at Newport Harbor High and TCU.

Thomassen said Abbott set herself up for success over this past summer, playing for Prime and working out with Dr. Bill Brown at Newport Aquatic Center, as well as playing beach volleyball.

"Her season between seasons was unbelievable," Thomassen said. "If you were going to draw up how to become a good volleyball player, what to do in the off-season, she did almost to a 'T' everything you would want what of your leaders to do."

As a setter, she sometimes gets overlooked by casual fans, but her progression has paid dividends for the Lightning. Maddy Abbott also has a special connection with McKenna, who was coincidentally last week's Athlete of the Week and is Abbott's best friend off the court.

This year they helped Sage accomplished big things, making its third straight CIF final and capturing the Division 3A title over rival Crean Lutheran. It started with winning the silver division at the prestigious Ann Kang Invitational in Honolulu, Hawaii. The Lightning also performed well at the Dave Mohs tournament.

Yet one season goal, winning an outright league title, did not happen. The Lightning had to share with Crean after falling in five sets in the Saints' gym in league.

As a team captain, Abbott said the loss stung, but that it was motivating and humbling for the Lightning. It made the magical end-of-the-season run even more special.

Sage Hill girls' volleyball has always been good, but making the state semifinals and playing into December? Now that was something that may have forced the rest of Orange County to notice the small school in Newport Coast.

Abbott definitely realizes the big picture.

"[Sage Hill] is still so new as a school and so young," she said. "A lot of times, people just look at it as a smaller school. It's not that well known, compared to Corona del Mar or Newport Harbor, which are great academic and athletic schools. It was great this year to finally be known as not just an academic school. We were making a name for ourselves athletically through our volleyball team. I think it meant a lot to our school, too, how far we went. Everyone was just super-involved and it was a community kind of effort, which is really cool.

"I had the decision to go to CdM or Mater Dei or here, and I ended up going here. I think a lot about how maybe things would have been different if I went to CdM or Mater Dei, how my volleyball life would be different or my teams would be different. I'm so grateful that I came here, and I had the experience to play with the girls that I have. It's just been awesome."

Abbott said this year's Lightning squad is the closest she's ever been on. There are big expectations for next year with her, McKenna and Whitford all returning, but Abbott will very much miss the senior class of Noto, Mowrey, Juliette Singarella and Sophie Gordon.

"I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to play with these girls," she said. "They're some of my best friends for life. They're honestly like sisters to me. I think it's a rare opportunity to play your favorite sport and do the thing you love, every day, with some of your favorite people."

Maddy Abbott

Born: Dec. 15, 1996

Hometown: Corona del Mar

Height: 5-foot-9

Sport: Volleyball

Year: Junior

Coach: Dan Thomassen

Favorite food: Popcorn

Favorite movie: "Sixteen Candles"

Favorite athletic moment: Helping Sage Hill sweep league rival Crean Lutheran in the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III semifinals Nov. 30, lifting the Lightning into the SoCal regional finals for the first time in program history.

Week in review: Abbott, a setter, had a combined 94 assists in victories over Cathedral Catholic and Crean Lutheran in the first two rounds of the CIF State playoffs.

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