The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
Red Swarm. That’s two words to represent a mindset handed down from generation to generation of Lakewood football players.
“It’s 11 red hats to the ball at all times,” Lakewood alum and defensive coordinator Vince Hernandez said. “No matter what uniform we are wearing, you will see those 11 red helmets in attack mode to wherever the football is at. That (style) will take you far as a defense because somebody is getting a secure tackle.”
Lakewood has a storied tradition of great Red Swarm defenses, and this 2022 version of the Lancers is no different. It’s the type of group that would rather make an aggressive mistake than a timid decision.
Just like its offense, the Lakewood defense has gotten markedly better as this season has gotten longer. The Red Swarm has 9 of its 12 interceptions and 28.5 of its 39.5 sacks in the last eight games. Coach Hernandez thinks that early games against good offenses prepared his defense to be peaking in November.
“We had to bounce back after the Millikan game,” Hernandez said of the 52-30 loss seven weeks ago. “Let’s just say the bye week was a lot of conditioning… These guys are turning it on now.”
Leading that change has been the versatile linebacking corps of Tyree McCowen, EJ Baltazar and Montrell Mingo.
McCowen is the best linebackers in the CIF Southern Section this year while breaking the Lakewood record for tackles in a single season. The junior currently has 165 tackles.
“He’s been a tackling machine for us,” Utupo said of McCowen. “When we watch game tape, wherever the ball is you just see No. 6 getting out of that pile so we’re going to continue to lean on him.”
The 6’0” 203-pound McCowen is following in the footsteps of cousins who played at Lakewood, and using lessons he learned from former teammates Travis Perryman and Rocky Tautai.
“Honestly I didn’t know (about breaking the record for tackles) but it’s really exciting,” McCowen said. “It means a lot. It’s deeper than football, it’s family.”
While growing up in Compton, McCowen played football because it was the sport his family played. He said he played pretty much every position, but fell in love with being a linebacker in high school.
“I love that dude,” Hernandez said of McCowen. “He’s a really smart player. He’s gotten more physical and faster this season and he doesn’t take crap from anybody and it’s starting to show in the game.”
Just like McCowen, Montrell Mingo wasn’t always a linebacker while playing for multiple Pop Warner teams because his older cousins played. When he got to Lakewood where his family also went to school, Mingo was a defensive back. However, a growth spurt and team needs moved him down to outside linebacker.
“His ability to help us in the pass game has been key with him being versatile in our defense,” Utupo said.
“Something clicked in the Wilson game and he’s been on a tear for us since,” Hernandez added.
Mingo thinks that his fellow linebackers have helped him get better.
“Him breaking the record made me want to play harder,” Mingo said of McCowen. “My teammates and coaches have helped me learn how to fill gaps and read steps and stuff like that. I knew how to drop into coverage, I just had to learn how to go forward. The Red Swarm also means danger when you get there. You have to arrive with a head full of steam.”
Unlike Mingo and McCowen, E.J. Baltazar has always been a linebacker or defensive end. Although much like his teammates, Baltazar was inspired to play football by his family. His uncle Jeremy Baltazar played in the NFL.
“E.J. looks like an NFL linebacker, the way he’s built,” Utupo said. “Every single game it seems like he’s growing and learning and becoming more of a student of the game. He specializes in the pass rush at outside linebacker but he’s getting better and better each day in coverage.”
The junior Baltazar thinks offseason work in 7-on-7 games helped him be more confident in coverage.
“He’s probably one of the most sneaky dangerous athletes in the area,” Hernandez added.
CLICK HERE to read more about defensive lineman Rahkeen Moore, who has over 100 tackles this season.
The Lakewood defensive secondary of safeties Jace Casillas and Anthony Winston Jr. and corners Zion Smith and Ayeven Aupiu will be tested for the first time in a month against the Sea Hawks.
“We have to rely on our secondary and I think they’re ready,” Hernandez said. “They’ve kind of been out of the picture these last two weeks so those guys are hungry.”