Lightning bidding to take step up

If the Sage Hill School football team didn't get enough of its coaches over the summer, the players could watch two of them every Thursday night on television.

Defensive line coach Akbar Gbaja-Biamila and secondary coach Ricky Sharpe were on the summer reality show "Expedition Impossible" on ABC, trekking across the mountains and deserts of Morocco.

Gbaja-Biamila and Sharpe were teamed with their former San Diego State teammate, Robert Ortiz. The trio did well, finishing fourth out of 13 teams after the season finale Thursday.

The Academy League season isn't expected to be as treacherous for the Lightning, who scrimmage at The Bishop's of La Jolla on Saturday and open their regular season at home against Fairmont Prep on Sept. 2. And Sage Hill definitely doesn't see a league title as an impossible dream, not after nearly dethroning rival St. Margaret's last season before falling, 10-6.

Sage Hill has not won a league title since the program attained varsity status in 2002. The Lightning also have never beaten the league champion Tartans, although last year was the first time the game was decided by less than three touchdowns.

"This is the year," Sage senior tight end/linebacker Ford Hanour said. "Changing of the guard."

Third-year Lightning Coach J.R. Tolver believes it can happen, too. But Tolver said he got some perspective recently while driving and listening to the radio.

"This song by Drake and Lil Wayne came on," Tolver said. "One of the lines in the song is, 'I went shopping yesterday, talk is still cheap.' I told my guys that. We say we want to be Academy League champions, we say we want to be CIF champions, we say we want to beat St. Margaret's. But we've been saying the same thing for the last three years. So let's put the talk away and go out and earn it.

"Do I think it can happen? Yeah. But I'll say the same thing every year. If we lost 20 years in a row, I'd say the 21st year, 'Yeah we can beat them.' I think at this point, we know we've closed the gap. They know we've closed the gap. It's just a matter of us going out and putting it all together. If we're saying we're going to change the guard, then let's change the guard."

Personnel has also changed. Lost to graduation was the Academy League Offensive MVP, Taylor Ross, the school's career rushing leader who in 2010 bruised his way to a school single-season record 1,869 yards and 26 touchdowns. Ross is now at USC as a preferred walk-on. In his place at tailback is senior Eric Cheng, who at 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds uses the word "shifty" when talking about his running style.

"I've learned a lot from him, but I'm not worried about filling his shoes," said Cheng, who rushed for 531 yards last year. "I'm worried about my game."

The Lightning also have a new quarterback in senior Taylor Petty, their top receiver from a year ago, when he caught 43 passes for 829 yards and eight touchdowns. Petty can throw to a starting wideout who is returning at receiver, Conner Ascher.

Ascher, who also plays cornerback, earned the nickname "Ascher Island" from Sharpe last year for his shutdown coverage. Tolver is very happy with the secondary in general and the linebackers as well, with Hanour in the middle flanked by senior David Fenner and junior Charlie Kim.

New defensive coordinator Scott Johnson, who played linebacker at San Diego State and had been an assistant coach at Scripps Ranch High in San Diego, has switched the defense from a three-three-five back to a four-three. But the defensive line returns no starters.

Sage lost Academy League Lineman of the Year T.J. Danner and Kevin Gregg to graduation, and junior Tanner Tremaine is not playing football this year. Danner's loss will also be felt on offense, where the left guard opened sizable holes for Ross time and time again.

"This is a totally different team," Tolver said. "Every year as coaches we've got to sit down and push our egos out the door and evaluate the talent we have. We can't do the same things we did last year. We don't have the size to do it, [but] we can still win and score a lot of points and stop people on defense."

The St. Margaret's game is still a long way away, Nov. 4 at St. Margaret's. The Tartans appear strong again, as they were ranked No. 3 in the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division preseason poll released Thursday. Sage Hill, which has lost in the first round of the playoffs each of Tolver's first two years, was among others receiving votes.

But things can change.

The Lightning want to prove they're more than just talk. Tolver, who began working with these seniors when he first stepped on campus in February, 2009, said he's excited.

"I got here when these guys were freshmen," Tolver said. "This is really my first freshmen-to-senior class. They know exactly who I am, they know exactly who our coaching staff is and they know exactly what we expect of them as players. They basically are at the top of the pyramid, and it's up to them to filter that down."

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