Three Sage Hill School seniors have returned from their third trip to Hawaii in four years. The three deserved to go to paradise again before the start of their final girls' volleyball season together.
Kekai Whitford, Halland McKenna and Maddy Abbott have built a dynasty at Sage Hill. The trio has played vital roles in Sage Hill reaching three straight CIF Southern Section finals, winning it twice, along with the school's first CIF State Southern California Regional Division III finals appearance.
Each of the team's runs have begun in Hawaii, on two different islands, Maui three years ago, Oahu last year, and Maui this year.
The outings in August have allowed players to bond, to learn, to work, to play, and for Whitford and McKenna, to spend time with loved ones who live in Hawaii.
Whitford's mother, Cathy Hedges, stays in Oahu, where McKenna's grandfather, Mike McKenna, also calls home. When Whitford and Halland McKenna have played with the Lightning on either island, their family members have come out to support them and their team.
Mike McKenna was able to see his granddaughter play for the first time last year.
Mike, who has made a living owning car dealerships, was easily sold on the team's performance. Sage Hill finished as the silver bracket champion at the prestigious Ann Kang Invitational in Honolulu.
Every visit to Hawaii has been special. The latest one ended with Sage Hill winning the top prize at a tournament for the first time on Hawaiian soil.
Whitford's family flew to Maui to watch her and Sage Hill claim the fifth annual Kamehameha Maui Invitational.
After Sage Hill topped Edison, 25-20, 25-23, in the best-of-three final in the Ikaika Division on Aug. 16, Whitford left her team. She joined her family for a Hawaiian potluck.
The gathering gave Whitford time to catch up with her mother, whom she misses.
"She moved back [to Hawaii] about three years ago," said Whitford, who lives with her father, Billy Whitford, and stepmother, Pua Whitford, in Costa Mesa. "It's definitely hard, but I really have a great support system here with my family."
Whitford's family extends to the court. Coach Dan Thomassen has created a family atmosphere during his 11 seasons with the Lightning.
The team has come closer together since Whitford, McKenna and Abbott arrived three years ago as freshmen. They easily could have gone elsewhere for high school, to bigger and higher profile programs.
Whitford's father played at Newport Harbor, helping the school's football program in 1970 to a share of the Sunset League title. McKenna lives in Laguna Beach, the school her brother, Hutton, attended. Abbott had the chance to go to Corona del Mar or Mater Dei.
The three chose Sage Hill, a private school that opened in 2000 and had advanced to the section finals only once before they enrolled. None of them regrets the decision.
"I love the school," said Abbott, who's fond of Sage Hill's challenging classes, the school's small size, with enrollment around 500 students, and the relationships she has built through playing volleyball.
This season might be Abbott's last playing the sport. While Whitford and McKenna have committed to play volleyball at Loyola Marymount and Stanford, respectively, Abbott isn't sure where she will end up.
Whitford and McKenna said they believe Abbott has what it takes to compete on the next level.
Abbott is the player responsible for setting up Sage Hill's attack, for feeding Whitford and McKenna, the team's 5-foot-7 outside hitters, the ball. Abbott will continue do so at a high level, and Sage Hill needs her to in order to fulfill its goals.