NEWPORT COAST — Though Sage Hill School moved up from Division IV-AA to Division 3-A for the CIF Southern Section girls' volleyball playoffs this season, the Lightning still had to fight the inevitable temptation to play down to the competition Tuesday night.
The Lightning, who won the IV-AA title in 2011, managed to remain above visiting Western Christian well enough to claim a 25-14, 25-21, 25-20 first-round victory.
Sage Hill (23-6), the No. 3 seed after sharing second place in the Academy League, advances to meet the Rosemead-San Bernardino winner in the second round Thursday.
The Lightning trailed early in the first two sets, before coming on strong to take command. The hosts did not trail in the deciding game en route to eliminating the Fighting Lancers (14-11-2).
"Our defense was inconsistent," Sage Coach Dan Thomassen said. "Our energy was good, but our fundamentals on defense were a little bit out of whack and our blocking was a little sloppy. We still tend to drop a little bit if we're playing a team that we think we are better than."
But Thomassen said his hitters made a crucial self-adjustment to help establish control.
"Their libero [senior Jordyn Ivey] was very good," Thomassen said. "She had a great nose for the ball, so Halland [Mckenna] and our other outside hitter, Maggie Danner, got a lot better at hitting away from their strength [Ivey]."
Danner, a senior, finished with 11 kills, while Mckenna, a sophomore, added nine for the Lightning, who produced their fifth straight sweep in their last five best-of-five matches. Danner and Mckenna also chipped in nine digs apiece.
Thomassen, a former Newport Harbor High standout who has former UC Irvine women's star Kari Pestolesi and UCLA product and former Newport Harbor standout Brett Perrine as first-year assistant coaches, also praised sophomore setter Maddy Abbott — who had 27 assists, a match-high four aces as well as eight digs — and defensive specialists Claudia Noto and Allie Mowrey.
Noto, a senior tri-captain along with Danner and senior middle blocker Brenna Van Hoogenstyn, had five digs, as did Mowrey, a junior libero.
"They made some hustle plays, keeping the ball alive, scrapping when we needed a point," Thomassen said of Noto and Mowrey. "I think that sent a message to the other team that we weren't going to give away any easy points."
After seizing an 8-5 lead in the opening game, the points became considerably more difficult for Western Christian. Sage then went on an 18-3 run on its way to taking the first set.
In the second set, the Fighting Lancers held leads of 8-6 and 15-14. But the Lightning scored six straight to take a 20-15 advantage. The visitors closed to within 22-21, but Sage Hill, which is attempting to claim the program's third Southern Section championship, kept on track for the sweep by scoring the final three points.
Sophomore Kekai Whitford had five kills and a team-best 13 digs. She also contributed two stuff blocks and one ace.
Van Hoogenstyn had four kills and one block, while junior middle blocker Juliette Singarella had four kills and one block assist.
"I don't know why we get off to slow start, but we're working on it," Danner said.
Thomassen said he had very little scouting information on the Covina-based school, which had some difficulty of its own getting its top hitters into the flow early.
Co-captains Itali Andrade, a junior opposite, and Brooke Bernard, a senior outside hitter, came in leading their squad with 328 and 211 kills, respectively. But Andrade did not get the first of her team-best eight kills until the fourth point of the second set. And Bernard finished with just three kills.
"We played aggressively," Thomassen said. "We made some mistakes, but they were aggressive mistakes."