Sage Hill School Coach J.R. Tolver saw his football team grow during an Academy League battle at Crean Lutheran Friday night.
The Lightning responded after an early deficit and had an answer for each score Crean produced. The teams tied twice, 13-13, and 20-20, and the game went back and forth before Sage Hill won, 50-40.
It was a big win and the Lightning were rewarded for it, as they earned an at-large berth into the CIF Southern Section East Valley Division playoffs.
Sage Hill is one of five Newport-Mesa area teams in the CIF playoffs, which begin Friday. The Lightning (5-5), the Academy League's third-place team, plays at No. 4-seeded Upland Western Christian (10-0), the Ambassador League champion. All games are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m.
"We never panicked against Crean," said Tolver, whose team went winless last year. "Our guys just systematically took over on offense and kept making plays. That is very encouraging.
"We want to instill to our guys to keep fighting no matter what. They pounded us in the running game. We had to keep scoring on offense. We eventually turned the tied in the game. I was encouraged with the way we won that game. Fighting through being behind and then taking a lead was very positive for us."
Sage Hill will need to use a boxer's mentality once again to have any chance at pulling off an upset against the Fighting Lancers.
Scoring a season-high 50 points certainly gives the Lightning confidence.
"I think we are playing great right now," Tolver said. "In the beginning of the year we struggled with finding our playmakers. But we have started to figure it out. The last three games we've played pretty well, scoring points and creating turnovers. I think we are playing as good as we have played all year."
Sage Hill is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Quarterback CJ McCord helped with that feat by providing a sparkling performance against Crean Lutheran (1-9). He threw for 193 yards and three touchdowns, completing 18 of 27 passes. He also caught a 36-yard touchdown pass from Vince Whetmore.
The Lightning and Fighting Lancers have one common opponent.
Both teams beat Calvary Chapel Downey, with Sage Hill winning, 35-8, and Western Christian, 41-8.