Football Preview: Sage Hill aiming for U-turn

Since May, J.R. Tolver's commute to work changed. He moved to Oceanside to be closer to family in San Diego, where he grew up.

The drive to where he works, Sage Hill School, isn't too bad, taking him 40 minutes to get to the Newport Coast campus. The drive allows him to collect his thoughts, analyze and plan his day as the school's football coach.

These days, like most high school football coaches before the season kicks off, Tolver has a lot on his mind. What he thinks about most is how his team will improve from last year's forgettable season.

Before he starts his car, Tolver said he has put the program's first winless season in the rearview mirror.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Tolver said of his fifth season in charge of the Lightning. "Coming off an 0-10 season, you want to be honest about where you're coming from and what you're coming off of.

"[Last season is] behind us because every year is different. For one, you have guys who are leaders as seniors that are no longer with you, and for two, you have a new crop of kids who had never been in your program before. I think in small-school ball the swing from 0-10 to 10-0 isn't really that far out of reach."

Going from a winless season to an undefeated one would be quite the turnaround for Sage Hill, which returns many of the same starters from a year ago. Seven return on offense and six on defense.

The first goal, as one of the returnees, senior Sam Masarik, a wide receiver and free safety, put it, is to win a game. Sage Hill's last triumph on the field came on Oct. 28, 2011. The Lightning are in the midst of a 12-game losing skid, the worst in the program's history.

Tolver's past two seasons turned out nothing like his first two in which he led the Lightning to winning seasons and the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs. Injuries to key personnel and taxing nonleague schedules have affected the team's success rate the last two years.

Tolver takes responsibility for Sage Hill finishing a combined 3-17 the past two years. He's the athletic director at the school and his harshest critic.

"We've had some pretty talented kids come through here over the last couple of years and we rode the coattails of those kids, as opposed to developing consistency and habits all the way across the board," Tolver said. "We got a little complacent in our details and that came back to bite us. For us, whether we have great athletes, or whether we have athletes that aren't so great, if we can teach habits, we can mitigate inconsistency.

"That goes back to me and my staff not preparing all of our players the same way, giving them a cue, making them go through a routine so that they can experience the reward."

Tolver and his staff want to create good habits for Sage Hill. Tolver said he read the book, "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg, and shared it's message with his players: how they can focus on the patterns that shape their lives and transform their habits so they can succeed.

The team's first chance to show it has corrected its bad habits is Thursday's season opener. The game against Calvary Chapel is on the road at Jim Scott Stadium.

On the way there, Tolver will put his time on the road to good use.

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Sage Hill School Lightning Quick Facts

League: Academy

CIF Division: East Valley

Coach: J.R. Tolver (fifth year, 18-24)

Staff: Tom Kirchmeyer (offensive coordinator), Shane Russell (co-defensive coordinator), Ricky Sharpe (co-defensive coordinator), Lamont Taylor (linebackers), Zeb Smithson (offensive and defensive line), Evan Love (running backs), Kerwin Walters (assistant)

2012 season: 0-10, 0-3 in the Academy League (fourth place)

Returning starters: Seven on offense, six on defense

Returning with honors: None

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Schedule

August

29 – vs. Calvary Chapel (Santa Ana) at Estancia

September

6 – Fairmont Prep

13 – vs. Capistrano Valley Christian at San Clemente, 7:30 p.m.

20 – vs. Escondido Charter at Orange Glen (Escondido)

27 – Classical Academy (Escondido)

October

4 – Silver Valley (Yermo)

11 – at St. Margaret's*

25 – Brethren Christian*

November

1 – Calvary Chapel (Downey)*

8 – at Crean Lutheran*

*denotes league game

All games at 7 p.m., unless noted

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