Column Football Lakewood

COLUMN: Big History at Stake For Lakewood Football This Week

The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.

Pride runs deep in Lakewood, where the city and its namesake high school have an incredible athletic history. Nationally elite in baseball for much of the last seven decades since the school was founded, Lakewood High has plenty of great history on the gridiron as well. But they have an empty spot in the trophy case that they’ll try to fill Saturday night at 7 p.m. when they host Northwood for the CIF-SS Division 8 football championship.

The Lancers have already made big history by getting to this point. It will be just the second-ever football championship game for the Lancers, after a 1970 appearance against Bishop Amat at the Los Angeles Coliseum. There, more than 31,000 fans watched John T. Ford coach his Lancers against Bishop Amat’s Lancers. At the end of regular, the game was tied 17-17.

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Instead of crowning co-champions or playing an overtime, the rules at that time stated a bizarre tiebreaker: whichever team had the best field position over the course of the game received an additional point and a tiebreaker championship. Bishop Amat won the trophy by virtue of having more trips across the 50-yard line than Lakewood did.

That was the only time the Lancers ever got to the championship, until they punched their ticket with an impressive second-half effort fueled by a dominant defense and run game last Friday at Rancho Verde. 

Lakewood has produced plenty of great athletes over the years, but the Lancers have been short on postseason success. Not only are they appearing in their first CIF-SS title game in 52 years, they’ve only been to the semifinals three times since then, going in 2004 and then back-to-back years in 2008 and 2009 under coach Thadd MacNeal, during a stretch widely considered the modern golden age in Lakewood football history.

Now head coach Justin Utupo has the chance to do something no coach in Lakewood history has done. He played for MacNeal and was mentored by him as he began his coaching career. He’ll be coaching in the newly-renovated John Ford Stadium Saturday as he tries to put his name up there with those two other Lakewood luminaries.

That weight of history is felt by all who try to shoulder it and improve upon it. Asked what it meant to do something that only Ford had done in his alma mater’s history, Utupo shook his head after the semifinal win.

“I can’t even process that,” he said. “That’s too crazy. I just know I’m proud of the kids and that they have a chance to make history.”

They could make history for the Moore League, as well. This will be the first time a Moore League team has hosted a CIF-SS football championship game on campus since Compton did it in 1978, and they could become the second-ever league team to hoist a CIF-SS plaque on campus with a win on Saturday night.

Win or lose, the Lancers have already made history with their surprising turnaround season. But if they win…they can put their names in the record books forever as the first Lakewood High football champions.

Mike Guardabascio
An LBC native, Mike Guardabascio has been covering Long Beach sports professionally for 13 years, with his work published in dozens of Southern California magazines and newspapers. He's won numerous awards for his writing as well as the CIF Southern Section’s Champion For Character Award, and is the author of three books about Long Beach history.