The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
Fresh off Lakewood’s dominating quarterfinal win over Redondo Union in the CIF Southern Section Division 8 quarterfinals last Friday, coach Justin Utupo’s phone was buzzing with friends and family reaching out to congratulate him and his team.
While scrolling through his messages he noticed one from Thadd MacNeal, who is Utupo’s former coach and Lakewood’s head coach from 2006-2010 when the Lancers last made it to the semifinals.
“I have definitely been following Lakewood since Justin took over,” MacNeal said. “I’m really really excited for him and the program. Justin has always been a dynamic, energetic person and I thought he’d be a great head coach because of those attributes.”
Since leaving Lakewood, MacNeal is now the head coach of Carlsbad, who is playing for the CIF San Diego Section Open Division title on Friday.
“It means a lot for him to check in on me and reach out and wish us luck,” Utupo said. “He congratulated us, and I said ‘Hey, the last time Lakewood was in the semis, it was me and you against Edison.’”
When Lakewood travels to Moreno Valley to take on Rancho Verde on Friday, Utupo will be looking to etch his name in the Lakewood record book joining John T. Ford as the only coach to lead a Lancers team to a CIF title game.
When he was playing at Lakewood and Notre Dame, Utupo kept a notebook of everything he learned from MacNeal and then- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
“I was a great note taker and I used to just write things down that MacNeal would say and when I was at Notre Dame, coach Brian Kelly, it was the same,” Utupo said. “Anything I thought would help me after football, I’d write it down.”
The Lakewood defense has given up one offensive touchdown during their playoff run reminiscent of the Red Swarm defense MacNeal had when Lakewood went on their playoff runs that included a Moore League title and beating Long Beach Poly.
“Culturally when you want to establish a winning culture, I saw what MacNeal was able to do and I really looked up to him,” Utupo said. “The experiences I’ve had with great head coaches and everything single day that I’m coaching I try to make those guys proud.”
Lakewood’s playoff run has caught the attention of former coaches, but also former players including Dion Bailey who was on those back-to-back semifinal teams with Utupo.
“This means a lot because there was a lot of hard work for four years,” Bailey said of his time at Lakewood. “To see it all dissolve within a year of us leaving high school pretty much, it’s good to see that he’s got the program heading back in the right direction, you know, giving us something to be proud of.”
If Lakewood wins, they are guaranteed to host the championship game at John Ford Stadium.
“Wow, I mean I may have to get on a flight to witness that,” said Bailey, who currently lives in Nashville.