Students in the first few rows held sticks with huge cutouts of the heads of the Sage Hill School girls' volleyball players. As if Sage Hill's opponent on Saturday had not seen enough of the Lightning.
For the second time in eight days, Crean Lutheran faced the Lightning, in the stands and on the court. The second meeting turned out much like last week's in the CIF Southern Section Division 3A finale.
Sage Hill finished the Saints in three sets, 25-17, 25-19, 25-22, in the second round of the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III playoffs in front of a raucous home crowd. The third-seeded Lightning advanced to the Southern California Regional finals for the first time.
Sage Hill (28-5), which began competing on varsity 12 years ago, made history by thumping the team it shared the Academy League title with during the regular season. Ever since Sage Hill dropped a five-set match at Crean Lutheran on Oct. 29, costing the program its first outright league crown, the Lightning have been on a mission.
The next match for the Lightning is at top-seeded Visalia Central Valley Christian (36-4) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the winner earns a trip to the CIF State finals. Sage Hill is traveling far, but the 225 miles to Central Valley Christian are worth it to Coach Dan Thomassen.
The Lightning have never won a team state title in any sport. The girls' volleyball team moved one step closer by easily eliminating seventh-seeded Crean Lutheran (22-8).
"The season that never ends," Sage Hill's Kekai Whitford said with a huge smile. "We came in knowing that it was going to be a battle. It's good [to see the Saints again] because we know a lot of what they're going to do, but I mean it does get kind of interesting when it's the fourth time we've played them on the season.
"We were completely motivated since Tuesday night, since our [five-set] win [at home against San Diego Cathedral Catholic in the opening round]. We knew that [the Saints] were going to come out because of the loss that they had [against us] in the [section] final."
Whitford killed any hope the Saints had in getting revenge. The junior outside hitter led the Lightning with 19 kills and she added nine digs.
Things began on the right note for the Lightning. Whitford turned it on early, recording five kills to put Sage Hill up, 6-2, in the opening set.
Sage Hill, which never trailed in the first set, watched its lead dwindle to two. Thomassen called a timeout and the Lightning took over. Halland McKenna produced a couple of her 16 kills, Lina Aluzri a service ace, Sophia Mossman a kill, and then Whitford closed the first set with a crosscourt winner.
The only time Sage Hill fell behind was at the start of the second set. Kayla Scheevel's kill gave Crean Lutheran a 1-0 lead. It didn't last long, as the Lightning went on a 13-3 run, receiving kills from Whitford and setter Maddy Abbott, an ace from Juliette Singarella and blocks from McKenna and Mossman.
The first of McKenna's two aces sealed the second set for the Lightning. One more set is all Sage Hill needed to sweep Crean Lutheran for the third time this season and improve to 14-0 at home.
Sage Hill went ahead in the third set, with the help of an Allie Mowrey ace and two Singarella kills. Mowrey, who finished with 11 digs and two aces, and Singarella, who contributed five kills, four blocks and two aces, prevented Crean Lutheran from tying the set.
The Saints got within, 22-21, right after an Abby Allen kill and a Lightning shot went long. From there, Sage Hill put away the Saints, going on a 3-1 run. McKenna produced two kills, including the one at match point. Abbott, who totaled 38 assists, went to the junior outside hitter and McKenna nailed it.
Sage Hill's players celebrated near the net by hugging each other. Soon those students carrying sticks with the large headshots of the players joined the Lightning on the court.
"These girls deserve to be celebrated and our school is rallying around them," said Thomassen, who in his 10 seasons in charge of the Lightning has never seen 500 fans pack the gym for a home match like they did on Saturday. "We had a holiday weekend, when a lot of people are out of town, [and they came] back to make sure they saw this match."