Lakewood has their man.
The Lancers confirmed Wednesday morning a move that’s been in the works since before they even had a coaching vacancy: Lakewood alum Justin Utupo is coming home to take over as head football coach of his alma mater.
“I’m grateful to be in a position to give back to my alma mater and the community that played an important role in molding me into the man that I am today,” said Utupo. “I’m just grateful and blessed and really excited.”
Utupo replaces Scott Meyer, who recently departed for his alma mater, Wilson High, after a two year stint coaching the Lancers. Since Thadd MacNeal’s record-setting run from 2006 through 2010, the Lancers have been coached by a series of short-term head men. Vince Lobendahn had a season, Kenric Jameison had two, Jimmy Nolan had two, Mike Christensen had two, and Meyer had two.
Although Utupo will be the sixth coach in the last decade for the Lancers, he’s not planning on handing the job off any time soon.
“It feels like where I’m meant to be,” said Utupo, who was a very successful head coach at rival Millikan for two seasons before departing to try his hand coaching in college. “For the past three years I’ve been chasing my dreams of where I thought I needed to be, and I started learning and trusting more in the man above. I strongly believe that this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Lakewood athletic director Mike Wadley did a great job moving the process along quickly, a necessity given that Meyer’s departure came less than three months before the Lancers’ first game of the season.
“We had Justin on a tour and three teachers saw him and told me he’s one of their favorite students ever,” said Wadley. “It’s really cool–there’s a lot of excitement on campus, people are pumped up. I think people are going to buy in right away, I know the kids are.”
Utupo was a star at Lakewood before going on to play at Notre Dame. After returning home to Long Beach he started coaching at MIllikan, where he took a 1-9 team and turned it around instantly, into a 17-6 performer over two seasons, with a 10-2 Moore League record and a pair of playoff wins.
The abbreviated spring football season led to a lot of awkward coaching transitions, and Lakewood’s was not exempt from that. When Wilson coach Mark Ziegenhagen stepped down, the Bruins began an extended coaching search, going through two rounds of interviews before hiring Meyer away from Lakewood.
Wadley, knowing that Meyer was in the running and a favorite to get the Wilson job, made contact with Utupo to let him know there might be an opening at Lakewood.
“We heard that he might be available and I reached out, knowing that he wanted to be back at the high school level,” said Wadley.
Utupo, though, had committed to become the head coach at Northwood in Irvine, and had already been announced there. He said it was hard to back out of that commitment, but that he felt the call of home and couldn’t deny it.
“They were understanding and they respected my decision to go back home,” he said.
Utupo takes over a Lakewood program in a good spot at the time Meyer departed. The team will open its new stadium this Fall, is getting its weight room renovated, and will have all-new adidas jerseys to wear this season as well.
“The energy on campus right now reminds me of when I was on campus as a student,” said Utupo. “We’re going to keep it going.”