NEWPORT COAST — Coach Jeff Beeler was the last member of the Sage Hill School boys' basketball team to leave the court. The players rushed out after they picked up a win in an Academy League opener.
Beeler ordered the Lightning back after a 58-51 victory against Whitney. He wanted them to pick up after themselves Tuesday night.
The Lightning returned to the bench and cleaned up before the tip-off of the girls' basketball game. They are off to a good start in the new year.
Beeler reminded the Lightning (12-3, 1-0 in league) that two other teams in league are as well.
"They have wins as well," Beeler said of Brethren Christian and St. Margaret's, which won their respective league openers. "We had an eight-game win streak at the beginning of the season, but we're at the same spot as we were last year, when we opened league."
There is one major difference between last season and the current one. Beeler believes the Lighting can contend for their first league title in school history.
Not bad for a team that Beeler said one poll had picked to finish fourth in league, behind Crean Lutheran South, a second-year program. Beeler, in his fourth season at Sage Hill, is using the slight as motivation.
In their first opportunity in league, the Lightning took care of business. They pounded the boards and used a strong inside-outside game to take control in the second half.
Sage Hill relied on two football players, T.J. Danner and Taylor Petty, for the physical work. Danner scored half of his team-high 18 points in the second half, while Petty grabbed 16 rebounds, six on the offensive end. The Lightning took advantage, converting second-chance points.
When the defense collapsed on the 6-foot-1, 260-pound Danner, the senior kicked the ball out to freshman Jack Williamson. The guard came off the bench and hurt the Wildcats (11-6, 0-1) from the outside, burying three three-pointers. Williamson joined Danner and point guard Mark Loper in double figures.
Loper, a senior, iced the game at the free-throw line down the stretch.
In the final 34 seconds, he made five of six from the line and finished with 17 points.
With Loper handling the ball and a low-post threat in Danner, Beeler feels confident about how far Sage Hill can go this season.
"I feel like this is the year," Beeler said of winning a league crown. "I don't want to say [defending league champion] Brethren [Christian] and St. Margaret's are down, but St. Margaret's is starting the season with a couple of injuries to some starters, and if Brethren was ever having a down year, this is it, even though they are [15-1].
"This would be the year to get [the championship]."
There is a lot of basketball left to decide whether Sage Hill can top its best finish in league, which is second.
The Lightning faced a team that always gives them fits. The Wildcats' scrappy, quick play kept them in the game at halftime.
Whitney only trailed, 28-25, much of it because of center Greg Amalu. He recorded 10 points and blocked three shots in the first 16 minutes.
Sage Hill's defense eventually slowed down Amalu, as he missed each of his seven shot attempts in the second half and only converted one free throw, leaving the junior with 11 points.
The presence of Danner and Petty helped.
"Me and Taylor definitely feel like we have the advantage against a lot of teams … in the paint," said Danner, who also had eight rebounds.
"This is about as even the league has been. I know that if we keep it up like we played [Tuesday] we can definitely contend for a league title."
Sage Hill 58, Whitney 51
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Whitney 12 – 13 – 8 – 18 — 51
Sage Hill 15 – 13 – 13 – 17 — 58
W – Frianeza 20, Amalu 11, Choi 10, Shah 4, Chan 3, Lee 3.
3-pt. goals – Frianeza 2, Choi 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
SH – Danner 18, Loper 17, Williamson 11, Nark 6, Petty 2, Zadra 2, Hanour 2.
3-pt. goals – Williamson 3, Nark 2.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.