The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
Of course it came down to the Lakewood defense.
Throughout this tumultuous season, the Lakewood defense has been getting better every week and helped carry the Lancers to the CIF Southern Section Division 8 semifinals on Friday at Rancho Verde.
The Mustangs needed a touchdown to win the game, and despite running seven plays inside the Lakewood red zone in the final minute of the game, the Lancers’ Red Swarm defense came up with a handful of sacks to clinch the 24-19 victory.
“At the end of the day we lean on that Red Swarm defense to get the job done for us,” Lakewood coach Justin Utupo said. “Every game it seems like in the second half they’ve been keeping us in ball games and this time they were able to finish it for us.”
Lakewood had nine sacks of Rancho Verde quarterback Landon DeBruyn, and five of them came on the final drive from four different Lancer lineman Rahkeen Moore, Noah Mallon, Derek Robertson and Tyree McCowen.
“Coming out of halftime we were hungry,” Moore said. “(Late in the game) that’s conditioning and the weight room. Up front we were locked in and ready to utilize what was working for us.”
Rancho Verde came into the semifinal averaging 164 yards rushing per game, and Lakewood held the Mustangs to 64 net rushing yards. DeBruyn completed 23 of his 33 pass attempts for 321 yards with three touchdowns. However, he only completed seven of his last 15 attempts while getting sacked six times in the second half.
“(DeBruyn) did a really nice job all night but when you force him to move and throw on the run it’s going to be difficult for him,” Utupo said. “Hats off to our defense and our defensive staff for making the adjustments at halftime and bringing pressure.”
Lakewood will host the Division 8 championship game against Northwood on Friday or Saturday. It will be the first time a Moore League football team has even hosted a CIF championship game on campus, and it will be at the newly renovated John Ford Stadium. The last time Lakewood went to a championship game in 1970 John Ford was the coach.
“This is for the players,” said Utupo, who was a Lakewood player the last time the Lancers reached a CIF semifinal in 2009. “They’re the ones who’ve put in the work and they’ve earned the right to etch their names in the history books. They’re making Lakewood proud. I’m excited to see this team play again.”
“To go 3-7 last year and have a bad start this year, it’s like we’re rebuilding the whole program,” Lakewood coach Brayden Downen said. “This means everything for us.”
Much like this season, Lakewood started the semifinal slowly as Rancho Verde ran out to a 13-0 lead. The Mustangs opening drive was 12 plays and five minutes before DeBruyn found Amarion Orange for a one-handed touchdown catch.
After the teams traded punts, Rancho Verde opened the second quarter with another touchdown pass as DeBruyn hit Orange on a 44-yard bomb down the far sideline for a 13-0 lead.
Lakewood responded by leaning on its rushing attack and finished the night with 258 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries, which is an average of 6.6 yards per rush.
The ensuing Lancers drive was three rushes from Zion Smith and Kaleb Foster, and Smith capped the quick drive with a 20-yard score to cut the lead to 13-7.
Rancho Verde answered with one of its best drives of the night, going 70 yards in five minutes on 10 plays that was capped with another long touchdown pass from DeBruyn to running back Dylan Riley.
The score was 19-7 with 4:41 left before halftime when Lakewood responded well again with one of its best drives of the night. The Lancers went 80 yards in 14 plays and capped the drive with a 27-yard field goal from Andrew Heang.
Lakewood received the second half kickoff and the offense picked up where it left off with a 12-play, 70-yard scoring drive capped by a 9-yard touchdown run from Foster on 3rd and 5 to cut the lead to 19-17. The drive included a trio of third and long pick ups.
Rancho Verde got the ball to midfield on its next drive as the third quarter came to an end, but Moore stopped the Mustangs with a huge sack on third down.
The first play of the fourth quarter changed everything as Lakewood had the ball 3rd and 9 on its own 43-yard line.
“I told coach they’re going man on me when we go trips left and pulled (the extra defender away) and that’s exactly what they did,” Foster said. “I ran at (the defender) , gave them a move, Braden put the ball in the perfect spot and the rest you saw.”
Foster came out of the backfield and ran a wheel route up the sidelines and past his defender just in time to see Downen’s pass fall perfectly into his hands. He took the 57-yard touchdown untouched for a 24-19 lead.
“They had switched to man coverage and I thought they would put a linebacker (on Foster) but it was a corner and there was a little confusion (on their side) so I knew they couldn’t stop and then catch Kaleb at full speed,” Downen said.
The Lakewood defense didn’t let Rancho Verde score in the second half, so that touchdown ended up being the game-winning score.
“We talked all night long about trusting the game plan and we knew the run would eventually open up the pass, and (Foster) got open on the sideline and that was the momentum shifter in the game,” Utupo said.
Rancho Verde took the ball to Lakewood’s 20-yard line on its next drive, and had to turn the ball over on downs after three consecutive incomplete passes.
The Mustangs defense forced a quick punt, but more big tackles for loss from Moore and McCowen forced another punt. Again the Lancers couldn’t get the first downs necessary to run the clock out, and Rancho Verde got the ball for the final drive on their own 31-yard line with 2:48 left.
Debyuyn drove Rancho Verde down into Lancers territory where four of the last six plays of the game were sacks to finish off the Lakewood comeback victory.
“Our adrenaline was pumping, but I was just focused on the quarterback,” Moore said. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group of guys, it makes me tear up. But we’ve got more work to do in the ‘Ship.”
“You can see how passionate we are, we’re a family,” Foster said. “To get to a championship is a great feeling.”
Foster added that having a large Lakewood crowd plus the Lancer cheerleaders, band and drill team in attendance really helped his team on the field.
“We really love our crowd and we appreciate them traveling all the way out here because it wasn’t a short drive. Compared to their crowd, our crowd was way better,” Foster said.