By Zach Cavanagh

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – San Juan Hills girls volleyball has earned its spot.

The Stallions have won four consecutive South Coast League titles on the strength of a 27-league match winning streak. For its efforts, San Juan Hills was selected into the newly organized and ultra-competitive CIF-SS Division 1 for the playoffs and continued to make its mark on Thursday.

The Stallions earned wins in tightly contested sets and fought off a charge from Vista Murrieta to take a four-set victory, 25-23, 25-19, 24-26, 25-21, in the first round of the CIF-SS Division 1 playoffs at San Juan Hills High School.

“They’re a very good team,” San Juan Hills coach Jessica Papell said. “Their rankings aside from the seeding for this tournament, they were ranked higher than us in every poll. We knew this was going to be a tough match. There’s not a single team you could play (in Division 1) that wouldn’t give you a good challenge.”

This is the first season that a CIF-SS committee has chosen the 16-team field for Division 1 based on rankings and other factors. In the CIF-SS continued quest for competitive equity, the Division 1 field has no easy outs.

San Juan Hills (17-7) will see that in the second round at No. 2 seed Redondo Union on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Redondo Union is ranked No. 4 in the nation by USA Today and No. 2 in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25.

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“Every team we’re going to play from here on out is literally one of the best teams in the country,” Papell said. “We just have to go out and battle and work hard and believe we’re going to be successful.”

The match’s nature was evident right from the get-go in a first set that featured 12 ties and five lead changes. Vista Murrieta fought off two game point’s before San Juan Hills took the set, 25-23.

The Stallions took control in the second set with a 6-1 run and led by as much as eight points. Senior outside hitter Abbey Dayton, a BYU commit, hit the final three kills of the set to win it for San Juan Hills, 25-19.

“Abbey Dayton was absolutely on fire,” Papell said. “She was hitting for an insane percentage through that second set. She took us on her back and played out of her mind, and that made a big difference.”

The Stallions also got a strong second set from junior middle blocker Malaya Jones as San Juan Hills looked most at ease in the second set.

“Everybody was doing their jobs,” Papell said. “We knew what ot expect from them. We had watched video on them. We wanted to key on their outside hitters, who are both amazing. I thought we did a pretty good job of slowing them down.”

Vista Murrieta pulled itself back into the match with another crazy set in the third. The third set featured 15 ties and six lead changes, but Vista Murrieta broke a 24-24 tie with two straight kills to take its only set, 26-24.

In the fourth set, San Juan Hills went on a 6-0 run to erase a three-point deficit and take a three-point lead. Vista Murrieta tied the set at 12-12, but from there, the Stallions went ahead and kept their distance. Dayton was again excellent down the stretch as San Juan Hills took the set and the match, 25-21.

San Juan Hills now looks to ride this momentum forward. The Stallions have a tough date next Wednesday, but at the very least, their victory on Thursday qualified them for the state playoffs, which will begin after the CIF-SS playoffs.

“We’re getting better and better,” Papell said. “We’ve been working on speeding up our offense, and our setters have done a really good job of embracing that. It makes it a lot harder to defend against us because the ball is coming out there faster and the block’s not getting close.”

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