The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
Lakewood and Redondo Union High Schools are separated by 20 miles, mostly on Interstate 405, but these two football programs have taken very different roads to the CIF Southern Section Division 8 quarterfinals.
After a slow start to this season, Lakewood (6-5) has used it’s aggressive defense and strong rushing attack to win three-consecutive must-win games over the last month.
Meanwhile, Redondo Union (8-3) used its spread passing attack to start the season with six consecutive wins. However, the Sea Hawks have lost three of its last five games while only scoring 14 total points in the losses.
The Lancers will travel the packed stretch of Southern California freeway on Friday to visit Redondo Union and find out which team can reach the semifinals— something Lakewood hasn’t done since coach Justin Utupo was on the team more than a decade ago. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“We know it’s going to be a hostile environment so we expect it,” Utupo said of the Redondo Union student section “The Flock” that has received awards for being one of the best student sections in Los Angeles County. “Just like with any road game, we talk about being road warriors and staying together.”
Utupo added that his team turning it up at notch in Moore League play, and in the second half of recent games, is not a coincidence.
“Our staff has been great making halftime adjustments,” Utupo said. “And we talk about four quarters of winning, so in the third quarter we preach effort and enthusiasm. We have to bring our own energy and juice in the third quarter because we don’t have the pregame hype from the crowd and band. They’ve done a great job of that for us.”
“I think we’re a second half football team,” Lakewood linebacker Montrell Mingo agreed. “It takes us a minute to adapt to the first half, and so we come out of the halftime knowing when they want to do and we get there before they do to stop it.”
Stopping the Redondo Union offense will start with Sea Hawks quarterback Christian Hunt (#1). The 6’6” senior has thrown for 1,793 yards with 20 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. Hunt’s favorite targets are Nate Stiveson (#7, 44 receptions, 731 yards, 9 CDs) and Bobby Shaw (#11, 40 receptions, 618 yards, 6 TDs).
“They remind me of Jordan and the way they are pass first,” Utupo said. “They have a 6’6” quarterback who stands tall in the pocket so we expect our front four to get after him early. Our defense has done a great job of bringing pressure different ways in our three and four down fronts. If we can force this quarterback to move out of the pocket and throw on the run it will help our game plan.”
“We have to keep our head on a swivel and keep checking zones and stuff,” Lakewood linebacker E.J. Baltazar said. “The defensive line also has to get a lot of pressure on that quarterback.”
Lakewood’s defense has been phenomenal since giving up 52 points in an Oct. 7th loss to Millikan. A big reason for that has been the coaches embracing things that have made the Lancers’ Red Swarm defense successful in the past.
“Most of our defensive staff played here during the Thadd MacNeil era and during that time the black jerseys represented the leaders of the defense,” Utupo said. “It didn’t necessarily mean you were a starter, you could just be someone who embodies the Red Swarm defensive mentally every day. Bringing out those black jerseys, we wanted to tap into our roots and tradition. It really pushed our defense because everybody wanted a black jersey.”
“It was something epic and full of pride,” Lakewood alum and defensive coordinator Vince Hernandez said. “It’s meaningful to have. Some guys have even had it taken away earned it back. It represents the overall true leadership of our defense.”
CLICK HERE to read more about how the Lakewood linebackers are leading the Red Swarm.
Lakewood’s offense has been equally impressive over the last month while scoring 119 points in the last three must-win games. Quarterback Brayden Downen has done a good job of cutting down on mistakes in the passing game, but more impressively, the senior has rushed for over 50 yards in all but four games this season to go with seven touchdowns on the ground. He scored two in the second half of the playoff win last week.
However, the most important member of the Lakewood offense has been running back Kaleb Foster. The senior’s season has mirrored the Lancers season. Foster didn’t score a touchdown in the first five games of the season while only rushing for 197 yards on 37 carries. In the last six games, he’s rushed for 598 yards and all eight of his touchdowns on 60 carries.
“I usually get butterflies before the game but I haven’t been lately,” Foster said. “I’ve been locked in and ready because I’m actually having fun as a starting running back and showing that I’m capable to showing my skills on the field.”
CLICK HERE to read more about how Foster was born into a football life.
“Overall there’s just a lot of excitement, around campus too from the admin and student body,” Utupo said. “Everybody is excited for this team.”