The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
This is the week Lakewood football has been waiting for.
The Lancers are hosting Hemet in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 8 playoffs on Friday. Not only are the Lancers looking for their first postseason win on campus since 2010, the game will be at the refurbished John Ford Stadium on its brand new field turf. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
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“It’s the playoff atmosphere and you’ve got to crank it up to another level,” Lakewood second-year coach Justin Utupo said. “The players are excited, the coaches are fired up and we’re moved up some of our freshman and JV players so those guys getting these extra practices in will be good for the future of the program as well.”
Lakewood (5-5, 4-2) finished third in the Moore League thanks to a strong finish with lopsided wins over Wilson and Compton. The Lancers defense has developed into the aggressive “Red Swarm” units of the past, and they’ve haven’t been on the field as much lately with the emergence of a viable offensive rushing attack.
Running back Kaleb Foster (pictured) has rushed for over 100 yards in three of the last five games while scoring seven touchdowns in that span. The senior averaged over 11 yards per carry in October.
Obviously, key to that success has been the offensive line of Michael Salinas, Jay Tauala-Harris, Luis Marrero, Isaac Pascual and Abraham Sanchez. Utupo said that unit has caught up to the scheme that’s to quality reps and constant improvement from guys like his 6’5” 295-pound tackle Salinas.
“There’s more of a focus and dog mentality,” Salinas said of the playoff atmosphere at recent practices. “(Our improvement) is all about trusting each other.”
Quarterback Brayden Downen has also taken full advantage of his improving offensive line. The senior has rushed for 422 yards on 61 carries this season while throwing for 1,297 yards and compiling 18 touchdowns touchdowns.
Hemet (8-2, 4-0 Inland Valley League) will be a stiff test for the improved Lakewood offense that has scored 91 points in the last two games. The Bulldogs have only allowed 14 points per game while racking up 35 sacks, 14 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. Junior defensive back Tanner Fye (#32) leads the team with 117 tackles, and senior linebacker Connor Chapman (#52) also has over 100 tackles.
The Lakewood defense also has a guy with over 100 tackles in middle linebacker Tyree McCowen. The junior has 126 tackles, which ties him with the all-time school record for tackles in the season. It ties the record set by Chandler Leniu in 2010, which is the year after Utupo graduated from Lakewood.
“He has a nose for the football, and at mike linebacker he embodies the Red Swarm mindset,” Utupo said of McCowen. “His energy has been bringing all of the other guys with him.”
McCowen thinks the increased aggressiveness from fellow linebackers Montrell Mingo and EJ Baltazar has allowed him to thrive. He recorded 32 tackles in the last two games.
“We stepped it up a lot and we know what we can achieve,” McCowen said of the Lakewood defense. “It’s about everything, like we’re getting more physical and that lets us pay attention to more stuff. We’re a Red Swarm now and getting to the ball.”
They’ll have to be ready for a strong rushing attack from Hemet led by running back Daniel Mendoza (#3) who has averaged almost 120 yards per game this season. Quarterback Draven Lopez is also a very capable runner.
McCowen and Utupo know that Moore League games against quality, mobile quarterbacks who are parts of good rushing attacks has prepared them for this game.
“We have our hands full and we have to stop the run, but we had to do that last week and the week before so our defense is definitely up for the challenge,” Utupo said.
From the intensity at practices, the organization on the sideline during games and the finals scores rolling in, it’s impossible to not notice how much this Lakewood team has improved after starting the season 1-4.
“It was about building that trust and chemistry throughout the season,” Utupo said. “They’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity this year. We’re just proud of the way they’ve been able to navigate though all of it and really stay together as one.”
“We’re humble, healthy and very excited for Friday night,” McCowen added.
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“We need the community behind us,” Utupo said. “Our student body has been great for us throughout the season and we’re going to need them loud for us because it’s the playoffs. It’s win or go home. We’re going to need that energy.”
(All statistics according to MaxPreps)