NEWPORT COAST — Coach Dan Thomassen said serving is his Sage Hill School girls' volleyball team's double-edged sword. And, for the first three games of Tuesday's CIF Southern Section Division IV-AA first-round playoff match against visiting Big Bear, the Lightning appeared destined to fall on it.
But, after missing 18 serves in the first three games, including 14 combined in Game 1 and Game 3 losses, Sage rallied for a 20-25, 25-14, 22-25, 25-8, 15-7 triumph to advance to Thursday's second round.
The Lightning (12-12) will face Mount Baldy League champion Ontario at a site to be determined.
The Academy League runner-up seemed determined to impede its own postseason progress Tuesday, peppering serves into the net, beyond the end line and wide of the sidelines to help keep the Bears (12-8) on top.
Eight service errors helped Big Bear claim the opening game and, after Sage missed just four serves in winning the second set, it reverted to bad form, committing six service errors to fall in Game 3.
But, after a missed serve put Big Bear on the board in Game 4 — after Sage had scored the first five points of the set — the Lightning put every one of their remaining serves in play to run away with the win.
Beyond just keeping their serves in, the Lightning struck for points from the service line. Sage produced five aces and four more service winners in the final two games to improve to 3-0 in five-game matches.
In addition, the hosts, who were largely carried offensively by 6-foot-2 middle blocker Zoe Kreitenberg in the first three games, began spreading their sets around to facilitate better balance and productivity.
Kreitenberg, who had 12 kills in the first three games, had just one down the stretch, as six different Lightning players struck for kills.
Junior Natasha Sakraney, who along with Kreitenberg are the team's co-captains, had five of her 11 kills in the final two games.
Sophomore Maggie Danner chipped in four kills the final two games to also finish with 11.
Kreitenberg added seven digs, four aces and was in on three blocks to add to her status as the most dominant player on the court.
Junior Alayna Lewis was also invaluable for the winners, contributing 32 assists, while adding three aces and three more service winners. She also had four kills, matching all but one Big Bear attacker (senior Jennifer Hirschler who led the Bears with five).
Big Bear's inability to put the ball away proved to be its undoing, but only when Sage stopped beating itself and forcing the visitors to make the mistakes.
Thomassen also credited the play of freshman libero Claudia Noto, who had a team-high 16 digs.
"Claudia came in and made our passing a lot more steady," Thomassen said. "When we serve and pass, we look like a really good team. At times, we played our best volleyball of the year [Tuesday]."
Serving more accurately allowed that to happen.
"We want to serve tough to put [the opponent] in trouble, but if we're missing that many, we have to change our philosophy a little bit," Thomassen said.