When it comes to offensive creativity, the Sage Hill School football team will trade in the ink blots it used to forge a 7-4 record last season for a more stylized look that figures to have significantly bolder strokes in 2010.
With the benefit of a veteran, physical offensive line and a pounding fullback in Dusty Orrantia, then-first-year Lightning coach J.R. Tolver and his staff were more apt to force the ball down the defense's throat than try to decorate the schematic plate with much garnish.
This season, however, a smaller, less physically imposing band of blockers, combined with a wide range of skill-position flavor, will present Tolver and first-year offensive coordinator Tom Kirchmeyer with a different challenge.
"We have four or five really solid playmakers and we have to find a way to get the ball in those guys' hands, whether it's the run or the pass," said Tolver, whose first season ended with a second-place finish in the four-team Academy League and a first-round loss to Grace Brethren in the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs. "I think our main goal is to allow our best players to touch the ball in a variety of ways. We're going to have to be creative."
Other than senior TJ Danner, a 6-foot-1, 260-pound two-way lineman who earned first-team all-league and All-Newport-Mesa laurels as a junior, the Lightning's marquee talent all line up outside the neutral zone.
Foremost among those who will tuck the leather away will be senior Taylor Ross, who after starring at a handful of positions last season on his way to All-Newport-Mesa distinction, has prompted Tolver to term him "definitely our stud right now."
Ross, who played tailback, quarterback, receiver, linebacker, safety and corner, in addition to being named Kicker of the Year in the Academy League, is slated to start at tailback. He is also listed as the backup to returning senior quarterback Randall Mycorn.
Mycorn, who missed several games last season with a separated shoulder, is bigger, stronger and more experienced after throwing for 544 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to second-team all-league recognition.
Mycorn, as well as returning junior receivers Taylor Petty and Conner Ascher, are among those who benefited from Sage's involvement in a summer passing league, believed to be a first in the history of the program that is now entering its ninth season.
Tolver, who will attempt to guide the team to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years, said that timing in the passing game was perhaps only the second most notable benefit from the passing league experience.
"I think it helped us to understand how to compete outside our four walls," Tolver said. "I think it taught us how to compete and it allowed us to play schools we normally wouldn't, like Corona del Mar and JSerra. I think it opened our kids' eyes to the fact that they could be just as good as, if not better than, kids who played at bigger schools."
Another eye-opening moment occurred early in Saturday's preseason scrimmage at The Bishop's in San Diego, Tolver said.
"Bishop's is a good team," Tolver said. "The first play of our first 10-play rotation, they went 88 and out the gate on us. Their team speed was phenomenal and it was a wake-up call for us. But once the light bulb came on, we made some plays and they only got two first downs the next nine plays."
With a collection of experienced and talented returners, the newly configured three-three-five defense has the potential to be lights out.
Danner has shifted from tackle to noseguard, where he is already wreaking havoc, Tolver said. And the next two waves of tacklers, anchored by Taylor-made rovers Ross and Petty, should provide ample cover against both the run and the pass.
Eric Cheng, a cornerback who will double up at fullback, is another of the aforementioned playmakers, who will attempt to keep Sage Hill in the upper half of a league dominated by monolithic St. Margaret's, which has outscored Sage, 451-49, in its first eight meetings, including 210-14 the last three years.
"Last year, we made it all about St. Margaret's," Tolver said of the 70-0 setback that ended the regular season. "That was a mistake, because as a team and as a family, you've got to take care of your business first. [The Tartans are] the cream of the crop, not only in our league, but in Southern California.
"But we feel like we can close the gap."
Last season: 7-4, 2-1 in the Academy League (second place). Lost to Grace Bretheran in first round of CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs.
Coaching staff: J.R. Tolver (head coach, receivers); JD Thompson (defensive coordinator, running backs); Tom Kirchmeyer (offensive coordinator); Ricky Sharpe (secondary);
Tre'dale Tolver (receivers, special teams); Zeb Smithson (offensive line); Greg Taylor (linebackers); Akbar Gbaja-Biamila (defensive line).
Returning starters: Six offense; seven defense.
3 – at Fairmont Prep (at Valley Christian), 7 p.m.
10 – TriCity Christian (home), 7 p.m.
17 – Mojave (home), 7 p.m.
24 – at Sherman Indian, 7 p.m.
2 – at Viewpoint of Calabasas, 11 a.m.
8 – Pasadena Poly (home), 7 p.m.
22 – Saddleback Valley Christian (home), 7 p.m.
29 – St. Margaret's* (home), 7 p.m.
6 – at Brethren Christian* (at Clark Field, Long Beach), 7 p.m.
12 – at Crean Lutheran*
*Academy League game