Saturday night was a celebration for Sage Hill School.
In 2016, the Lightning transitioned from 11 to 8-man football. Three years later, an undefeated regular season and a first Express League title is in their grasp.
Behind explosive plays from senior quarterback Darius Shayan-Smith, Sage Hill topped Downey Calvary Chapel 28-12 on senior night at Ramer Field.
The Lightning are 9-0 overall and finished 6-0 in the league.
“We have a group of seniors that started from the ground up with this program,” coach BJ Crabtree said, “and this title is an important life lesson for them: you can put your head down, work and eventually win big.”
Shayan-Smith, a former tight end forced under center by Von Freund’s injury in September, completed six of 12 passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns.
He punished the Grizzlies (5-2, 4-2 in league) more with his feet, as he busted loose on a sneak for 78 yards to open scoring.
“Coach always tell us to start off with a bang,” Shayan-Smith said. “We scared [Calvary Chapel] early with the run, which set up the pass.”
He totaled nine carries for 59 yards. Nick Karahalios led with 19 attempts for 68 yards.
Lightning linebacker Sahir Patel recovered an Isaiah Cano fumble only moments later. Crabtree then dialed up a throwback to senior Michael Sherlock for a 20-yard score.
A blowout seemed imminent. The Grizzlies, however, clawed back from the 14-0 hole.
With Sage Hill creeping toward another touchdown, linebackers Adam Westfield and Andrew Rangel sacked Shayan-Smith on consecutive dropbacks to force a turnover on downs.
Cano redeemed himself for the earlier fumble, punching in a 10-yard score to slash the deficit to 14-6. He toted the rock five times for 36 yards on the drive, but was stuffed at the line by Patel on a two-point try.
Just before halftime, the Lightning defense stepped up again. Quarterback Emanuel Gammage scrambled into a host of defenders, only for the ball to pop into the hands of freshman defensive tackle Connor Hatzenbuehler.
“Three years ago, we couldn’t hit,” Crabtree said. “We showed our growth tonight.”
The game tightened in the third quarter. Gammage scrambled for 23 yards, and Von Wu punched in a score to close the gap to 14-12 on the final play of the frame.
Senior Lightning captain John Bush stood up Cano on another two-point try to maintain the lead.
Despite the advantage, the home crowd braced for a cold, tense fourth quarter. Crabtree’s upperclassmen — the building blocks of this nascent program — delivered in the final 12 minutes.
Patel sprinted past the secondary for a 37-yard touchdown pass from Shayan-Smith for a 21-12 margin. After the kickoff, junior Jake Nadelman recovered a fumble forced by Bush.
The future stars of the program slammed the door on the Grizzlies. Sophomore Alvaro Corona picked off a screen pass and returned it for a 24-yard score. At 28-12, the final six minutes were academic.
“Calvary Chapel tested everything we’ve built with this senior class,” Crabtree said. “Our toughness, our perseverance and man, our defense were on full display tonight.”
Sage Hill finds out its playoff destination Monday at 10 a.m., as the CIF Southern Section will reveal its 8-man playoff brackets.
Sage Hill 28, Downey Cavalry Chapel 12
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Cavalry Chapel 0 – 6 – 6 – 0 — 12
Sage Hill 14 – 0 – 0 – 14 — 28
SH – Shayan-Smith 78 run (Corona kick), 6:13
SH – M. Sherlock 20 pass from Shayan-Smith (Corona kick), 4:59.
CC – Cano 10 run (run failed), 7:46.
CC – Wu 1 run (run failed), :05.
SH – Patel 37 pass from Shayan-Smith (Corona kick), 11:08.
SH – Corona 24 INT return (Corona kick), 6:25.
CC – Cano, 22-86.
SH – N. Karahalios, 19-68.
CC – Gammage, 10-19-2, 50.
SH – Shayan-Smith, 6-12-0, 68, 2 TDs.
CC – Rangel, 2-27.