CARLSBAD — Early on, Saturday afternoon's nonleague football game between Sage Hill School and Tri-City Christian was competitive.
Lightning Coach J.R. Tolver still saw something missing. Less than two minutes into the game, he questioned his team after Tri-City Christian's Nathan Medrano scored on a punt return.
"Are you ready now?" Tolver asked his players as they came off the field. "Football is a game of emotion. If you don't play with emotion, that happens."
It didn't get better from there.
Tri-City Christian turned a close first-half game into a blowout, dealing the Lightning their first loss of the season, 50-14, at Army and Navy Academy.
Outside of a couple of big plays, the Lightning (1-1) could not move the ball. They were blanked for the final three quarters as Tri-City Christian scored 43 unanswered points.
"We came out flat," Tolver said. "I told them when it comes to football, it's not about X's and O's. If you want to be about X's and O's, go play Madden, because you can win with X's and O's there. If you don't come out to play a football game with emotion, you're going to be in trouble, especially when you play against a good football team — which Tri-City is and they've proven to be. They got the best of us today."
Sage Hill rallied from a 19-point deficit late in the third quarter to stun Tri-City Christian, 33-31, last year. The Eagles (1-1) made sure it didn't happen again. They scored five of their seven touchdowns on the ground, two each for senior fullback Matt Erickson and sophomore Ben Giese.
The Lightning actually led after a quarter on Saturday, 14-7. Senior tailback Eric Cheng had a 73-yard touchdown run out of the Wildcat formation on Sage Hill's third possession. One possession later, the Lightning moved usual quarterback Taylor Petty out to his previous position of receiver. It paid off on fourth-and-10, when junior Harrison Ray found Petty on a precise 26-yard pass over the middle.
Even then, there was a negative. Petty ran to bump chests with junior tackle Ryan Morgan in celebration, but Morgan came away from the chest-bumping clutching his left wrist. He didn't return to the game.
Tolver said he couldn't be upset at the freak accident. Still, it didn't exactly help his young offensive line's chances of opening up holes for Cheng, who still finished with 103 yards on 18 carries and also had an interception on defense.
Cheng returned the interception to the Tri-City Christian 10-yard line early in the second quarter. But a holding penalty backed the Lightning up and they turned it over on downs. The Eagles immediately drove down the field, taking the lead for good on Erickson's five-yard touchdown run and subsequent two-point conversion run.
"[Cheng] is one of the fastest guys you'll see," Tri-City Christian Coach Rick Brown said. "He's an outstanding athlete … The real key was just our offensive and defensive lines. They just cracked some big holes, and they got to [Cheng] before he could actually start running. It's won or lost in there."
Tri-City Christian scored three times in the second quarter, the last time when Sage Hill nearly got a goal-line stand. On second-and-goal from the one-yard line, quarterback Christian Rodarmel fumbled the snap and the Eagles were out of timeouts. But Rodarmel recovered the ball and, as the seconds ticked away, he calmly handed it to Erickson.
The 6-foot, 257-pound fullback again had no problem rumbling into the end zone with two seconds left, giving Tri-City Christian a 29-14 halftime lead. Brown said he was proud of Erickson, who had been sick all week but rumbled for 71 yards on just nine carries.
Sage Hill left Carlsbad also feeling sick, after Tri-City took advantage of good field position to score three more touchdowns in the third quarter.
"Starting in warm-ups, we didn't come out with a sense of urgency," Petty said. "I think that hurt us in the long run. But I'll tell you one thing — we're going to come out next week with a chip on our shoulders every practice. We're going to come out strong next week."