Sage Hill School transitioned from 11- to 8-man football in 2016. Conventional wisdom states that the less players on the field, the easier it is to man a team.
Not so fast, according to Lightning coach BJ Crabtree.
“There was a stigma from some that 8-man wasn’t really football,” Crabtree said. “It is, of course. You block, tackle, run and catch just like in 11-man.
“We just needed to prove to the student body that it’s the real deal.”
Two winning seasons reversed the negative inertia of that skepticism, and Crabtree’s first full senior class is poised for a CIF Southern Section 8-man Division 1 playoff run in 2018.
Crabtree praised the resilience of his four seniors — Nicholas Karahalios, John Bush, Michael Sherlock and Darius Shayan-Smith.
“They stuck it out,” he said. “They not only have great character, but they want to build something that will last after they leave.”
Karahalios projects at starting running back, while the latter three alternate between receiver and tight end. On defense, the first three rotate at linebacker, while Shayan-Smith anchors the front.
Sherlock and Shayan-Smith both produced in Sage Hill’s 35-34 win over Downey Calvary Chapel — their biggest win last year. The former notched 12 tackles and a pick to go with 52 receiving yards, while the latter racked up eight catches for 171 yards.
These four enter their final campaign with an 11-6 record in the first two years of the 8-man program, making the playoffs both times.
The first year was defense-optional, as the Lightning ceded 43.3 points per contest — including a 91-56 loss to Palos Verdes Peninsula Chadwick. Crabtree and defensive coordinator Ricky Sharpe, a former Los Angeles Avenger defensive back, needed a new approach.
They discovered “hawk” tackling, a rugby technique that emphasizes leading with the shoulder rather than the head.
“It’s been absolutely program-changing,” Crabtree said. “We allowed under half the points from year one to two, shut out three teams in a row, and most importantly, we had zero concussions last year.”
Crabtree credits the work of athletic trainer Meaghan Beaudoin for the player safety.
Two vital pieces departed; one due to graduation and the other voluntarily. Star quarterback William Leong is at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he is currently fighting for a spot on the Midshipmen football team. Filling Leong’s shoes at Sage Hill is rising sophomore Van Freund.
“William was a Sunset League-caliber player,” Crabtree said of the league that plays 11-man football. “We opened our playbook with him, and we want to continue that with Van. He’s very raw, but his athleticism is through the roof. We’ll try to be diverse as we can, but be realistic about the playbook size.”
Freund is the son of Merja Connolly-Freund, the captain on the 1984 UCLA women’s volleyball squad that won the national championship.
Additionally, offensive coordinator Michael Kilkenny has left the staff for personal reasons. Crabtree takes over the play-calling duties, and has help from Hunter Simmons, a former Huntington Beach High player, on coaching the fronts.
“I feel most comfortable calling plays, anyways,” Crabtree said. “Hunter has been incredible mentoring both sides of the ball.”
After two years as a freelance team, the Lightning will compete in the Western Athletic Conference’s Express League. This means a full, six-game league schedule.
The season opener is a nonleague game Friday at home against Sun Valley North Valley Military Institute at 7 p.m.
Sage Hill Lightning
CIF Southern Section 8-man Division: 1
Coach: BJ Crabtree (third year)
Staff: Ricky Sharpe (defensive coordinator), Hunter Simmons (offensive line/defensive line/assistant offensive coordinator)
2017 season: 6-2 overall, lost 67-20 to Mojave in the first round of the CIF Southern Section 8-man Division 1 playoffs
Offensive scheme: Multiple
Defensive scheme: 2-3
Returning offensive starters: Six
Returning defensive starters: Five
Returning with honors: None
24 — vs. Sun Valley North Valley Military Institute
1 — at Brethren Christian*, 11 a.m.
8 — vs. North Hollywood East Valley, 6 p.m.
14 — vs. Lucerne Valley
21 — Bye
28 — at Avalon*, 5 p.m.
5 — vs. Silverado St. Michael’s Prep*
13 —at La Verne Lutheran*, 11 a.m.
19 — at San Pedro Rolling Hills Prep*, 3:15 p.m.
27 — vs. Downey Calvary Chapel*, 6 p.m.
*denotes league game