The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
For the first time in 13 years, Lakewood will play for a chance to win a CIF Southern Section championship on Friday at Rancho Verde. The Division 8 semifinal is scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m.
“I’m excited for these players because they’ve worked so hard for this moment,” said Lakewood coach and alum Justin Utupo, who played in the last Lakewood semifinal appearance in 2009. “I was looking at that thinking, ‘Wow, I’m old.’ But I see so much of that ’09 team in this team because we had to overcome adversity early in the season, and the way they’ve been able to take it all in and move forward as one is exciting to see.”
Lakewood (7-5) has had an incredible turnaround this season after losing four of its first five games. The Lancers got some confidence from a win at Cabrillo, and then came home the next week to upset Jordan. Consecutive convincing wins against Wilson and Compton to close out the season earned Lakewood its spot in the postseason.
“We knew this was a marathon and not a sprint,” Utupo said. “We’re enjoying the process and just taking it one day at a time. The reason we are where we are now is because of the tough teams we faced in the Moore League. The speed in the Moore League is unlike any other league we’ve seen.”
“We got a lot of confidence from playing Poly and moving the ball,” receiver Ellis Gibson said. “We started to realize we can move the ball on other teams.”
Lakewood quarterbacks coach Malik Zaire, who played at Notre Dame with Utupo, took over play calling duties in the middle of the season and has relied more on the running game. The results speak for themselves as Lakewood has scored over 27 points in the last four games.
“Coach Z really came in and stepped up and has been calling the right plays for us,” Gibson said. “He’s able to read the field really well.”
The Rancho Verde defense is led by Johnny Zomalt (#21) who has double digit tackles for loss this season to go with five sacks in nine games. The Mustangs have only forced seven turnovers this season.
Lakewood running back Kaleb Foster is averaging almost eight yards per carry this season, and has scored all nine of his touchdowns in the last seven weeks. CLICK HERE to read more about Foster.
Rancho Verde (5-7) was the No. 3 team out of the Ivy League and upset top-seeded Brentwood 21-14 in the first round before outscoring Lake Elsinore 53-25 in the quarterfinals. Much like Lakewood, the Mustangs started slowly this season with five consecutive losses.
Lakewood and Rancho Verde share one common opponent and they both lost to Orange Vista. The Lancers fell to the Coyotes 35-13 in the first game of the season, and the Mustangs lost to the Cougars 50-14 in the last game of the regular season.
Rancho Verde has a strong rushing attack with junior Dylan Riley (#24) leading the way. The running back has racked up 1,564 yards (130 per game) and 13 touchdowns this season. Quarterback Landon Debruyn (#11) threw four of his 17 touchdown passes this season last week, and his favorite target is Amarion Orange (#6) who caught two of his 10 touchdown passes last week.
“I’m not surprised we’re here, and we’re here because of the mindset (our coaches) instilled in us,” Lakewood defensive linemen Rahkeen Moore said. “Being physical, controlling our gaps and getting a good punch off the line are keys that will help us win this game.”
“This is going to be one of the best running backs we’ve faced since the Jordan game,” Utupo said. “If we can continue to swarm to the football on defense and continue to be balanced on offense and lean on our run game to help open up the pass, I think we’ll be just fine.”
The Lakewood band, cheer and drill teams will also be making the trip to Moreno Valley, and if the Lancers win there they will host the Division 8 championship next week.
“They don’t know how important it is for our players to see that support and hear them right behind them,” Utupo said. :Being able to have that support in the stands is huge for us on the road… We’re at the point of the year where you can start talking about championships. That’s all the motivation this team needs.”
All statistics according to MaxPreps