Football: Lightning seeking foothold

On Aug. 6, Coach J.R. Tolver and his Sage Hill School team stepped on the football field for the first time this season.

The season opener isn't until Aug. 24, but the walk-through was like no other.

Gone was the grass.

In was a new artificial turf.

The timing was perfect to Tolver. The $1 million renovation to Ramer Field looked complete, just in time for the Lightning to begin the first week of two-a-day practices.

"You can tell there's definitely a sense of pride associated with a great facility," said Tolver, whose team plays host to Notre Dame of Riverside in a scrimmage on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. "One of the things that [my players have] shown since we started is that they take that extra step to keep everything clean and to make sure that things are picked up. They're taking the pride into the fact now that, 'Hey, this our school!' So when somebody comes to our school, we have to protect it."

Sage Hill's home-field advantage comes right away, the first game of the season.

The small private school opens against Calvary Chapel. The matchup is the first for Sage Hill against an Orange Coast League team.

The nonleague contest is a test for the Lightning. Both teams are coming off disappointing 3-7 seasons, so getting off to a good start is crucial.

Sage Hill opened last season with a win, the same way it had the past two years under Tolver. Then the Lightning dropped five straight games, losing by an average of almost five touchdowns per game during the skid.

The season ended with Sage Hill placing third in the Academy League, not good enough to secure a third straight CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoff berth.

"It was difficult because our expectations were high," Tolver said of last season. "I had six or seven … seniors that could really play, that were arguably some of the best athletes that I ever had on my team.

"We played a pretty tough schedule. Every team is different. I think that we had success that first year and that second year, and maybe there was a little bit of, 'Well, we're going to be successful this year.' We learned a hard lesson last year. Every year is different. Every team has to figure out [its] own identity, and last year we didn't do a great job of figuring out what our identity was, and before you know it, it was too late."

There is a lot of optimism at Sage Hill that a turnaround is coming.

The new field has attracted around 50 players to come out, the most in Tolver's four seasons. The number is big when you consider the school only has about 200 boys.

Seven starters return on offense and five on defense. The big-name seniors are Harrison Ray, the quarterback and safety, Thomas Fenner, a wide receiver and noseguard, and Charlie Kim, a running back and cornerback.

Those are three players Tolver is counting on to lead Sage Hill back to the postseason. Placing first or second in the four-team league guarantees entry into the playoffs.

The league favorite is always rival St. Margaret's. Sage Hill has never beaten the Tartans in football.

While the Lightning haven't topped St. Margaret's on the scoreboard, Tolver believes that when it comes to the turf fields for each school, Sage Hill has the best.

The best team in league gets to play on arguably the best field in league in the regular-season finale, when the Tartans, who won, 38-3, last season, visit the Lightning on Nov. 2.

david.carrillo@latimes.com

Twitter: @DCPenaloza

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