Sage Hill School football Coach J.R. Tolver said Friday night was senior Joe Melita's first game ever playing running back.
Melita impressed in the Lightning's 42-20 season-opening nonleague loss to Calvary Chapel. He rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries. He was also a terror on defense at linebacker, consistently penetrating into the backfield and recording a sack.
Melita had 133 yards by halftime, including a 66-yard run, before tallying just three carries in the second half as the Lightning played from behind. Tolver said Melita, who was a safety as a sophomore two years ago and played on the offensive line and defensive line last year, has progressed quickly. He also is Sage Hill's kicker.
"He has gotten bigger and he has gotten stronger," Tolver said. "He doesn't just want to be a kicker. He wants to be somebody that's very important to this team ... I couldn't be more proud of that kid. I think he has a lot to learn and a long way to go, and I'm happy as a coach that I'm going to be able to watch that."
If Costa Mesa High gives up an average of 10 points per game the rest of the season, Coach Wally Grant said his football team would be fine.
What isn't well is the Mustangs' offense.
Costa Mesa kicked off the season at home Friday and it failed to do much, losing to Western, 10-0, at Jim Scott Stadium.
"Offensively, we're a work in progress," Grant said after his team gained only 82 yards (56 rushing and 26 passing). "I said earlier, I was happy with my defense and my defense was going to keep us in games early until we can figure out what we're doing offensively."
The offensive woes kept the Mustangs from winning their first season opener since 2001.
Sage Hill's matchup against Calvary Chapel had two firsts. It was the Lightning's first home game on the new artificial turf at Ramer Field, and it was also their first time playing against a team from the Orange Coast League.
Tolver said he was proud of the way his team hung in against Calvary Chapel, after a tough start that included a 21-0 deficit early in the second quarter. He said during the week, he had talked to his team about how the 2007 New York Giants won Super Bowl XLII against the heavily favored New England Patriots.
"You can go down the line and name all the Patriots players, the athletic players on the Patriots," Tolver said. "There's not many things you can say about that Giants team, but that Giants team came out with a competitive, combative spirit, and they won the game ... If we can play with a competitive, combative spirit, we can keep ourselves in ballgames and win a lot of ballgames that we shouldn't. This could have been one of them, but we spotted [Calvary Chapel] 21 points. But my kids never gave up."
While Costa Mesa was unable to move the ball, recording only four first downs, the defense kept the Mustangs in the game.
Junior middle linebacker Oronde Crenshaw was all over the field making tackle after tackle. He finished with 20 tackles (nine solo).
On the game's opening drive, the Mustangs stopped Western on downs inside the red zone. Marco Zalpa, a junior lineman, stuffed a run on fourth-and-two.
Costa Mesa also forced the game's only turnover. Rudy Aguirre, a senior linebacker, recovered a fumble on the Mustangs' 24 late in the game.
The only big play the Mustangs allowed was a 55-yard reverse that went for a touchdown with 7:31 left in the second quarter. That was all Western needed because Costa Mesa didn't pose a threat offensively, reaching midfield just twice.
"That was the difference right there," said Grant, who lost four key first-team All-Orange Coast League offensive starters — running back Mario Smith, quarterback Nathan Alvis and wide receivers Jordan Walden and Trace Curet — to graduation.
Tolver, who is also the Sage Hill boys' athletic director, liked the challenge of facing a bigger school like Calvary Chapel. But he doesn't necessarily want to stop there, he said.
The Lightning have also never played another Newport-Mesa program.
"For us to start legitimizing our program, we need to first of all play teams like [Calvary Chapel]," Tolver said. "But we also need to compete with teams in our area. We need to play the down-the-road teams, the CdMs of the world and the Newport Harbors of the world. We can't keep traveling all the way to Riverside to find a little small-school football team to play, or traveling to the [San Fernando] Valley, or traveling to San Diego.
"If we want to legitimize ourselves in this community, every year we're going to have to pick a team that on paper is going to outmatch us. We've just got to lace them up and let the chips fall where they may."
Costa Mesa has never beaten Western in a football game. The Mustangs are 0-5-1 against the Pioneers.
Grant wasn't worried about the Mustangs' 11th straight season-opening setback.
"The preseason means nothing to me," Grant said. "I'll lose the first game the rest of my career as long as it gets me into the playoffs."
Grant led Costa Mesa to the CIF Southern Section Southern Division playoffs last season in his head-coaching debut. The program reeled off eight straight victories after dropping the first game of the season.
The Mustangs' next game is against Santiago at Jim Scott Stadium on Thursday at 7 p.m. The contest is Santiago's first of the season.
Costa Mesa met Santiago in its second game last year and won, 42-7, ending a five-game losing streak to the Cavaliers. The victory was Grant's first in charge of his alma mater.
Grant said he expects to have senior left guard Oscar Reyes back in three weeks and junior right guard Joseph Quiroz against Santiago.
Reyes missed the season opener because of a broken ankle and Quiroz rolled his ankle during the game against Western.