The562’s coverage of Lakewood Athletics is sponsored by J.P. Crawford, Class of 2013.
History will be made on Saturday night at Lakewood High when the Lancers host the CIF Southern Section Division 8 Football Championship game against Northwood. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Lakewood is the first Moore League team to host a CIF Football Championship game on campus at the newly refurbished John Ford Stadium, and it’s the first time the Lancers are playing for a championship since 1970 when John Ford himself was the coach.
“We’re playing at home and a lot of alumni will be here with the stands packed,” Lakewood alum and 2nd-year coach Justin Utupo said. “You’ve got to stay focused and locked in and take it one play at a time. It’s so easy to get distracted because the sidelines are going to be filled unlike any other game. If we can stay mentally locked in we’ll be fine.”
Lakewood (8-5) is on a five-game winning streak after coming back to win its semifinal at Rancho Verde last week. The Lancers have put a 1-4 start to the seasons behind them and are peaking at the right time, so Utupo doesn’t want to alter their routine.
“You don’t want to change anything that’s been working well for us with our schedule and preparation,” Utupo said. “We’ll get the players focused in for a pregame meal and then meetings before the game. This group has been doing a great job with their preparation and they’re going to be focused and ready to go.”
Northwood (12-1) hasn’t lost since Sept. 2 when they dropped a close game to Laguna Beach— the only common opponent they share with Lakewood. The Timberwolves are returning to a CIF Championship game for the second consecutive season after beating Jordan in Division 11 last year.
Quarterback Eugene Miyata (#11) and running back Adam Harper (#3) have the Northwood offense cooking this season to the tune of 33.7 points per game. Miyata has completed 109 of his 161 pass attempts this season for 1,557 yards, 25 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Harper is averaging over eight yards per carry after racking up 1,972 yards on the ground.
Lakewood is lucky to have faced a similar offense last week at Rancho Verde where the Lancers front seven got pressure that changed the game and ended up clinching the victory with three four sacks on the final drive. While guys like Rahkeen Moore and Derek Robertson recorded the sacks, fellow senior defensive lineman Noah Mallon was freeing his teammates up with hard work.
“When you watch film and see the people who do the dirty work and don’t get a lot of notice, like our offensive line, Noah is one of those guys who takes on double teams and causes confusion when we want to do stunts and movement,” Utupo said.
Mallon, a team captain, is also Lakewood’s punter and emergency offensive tackle where he played some during the non-league schedule.
“He’s a selfless player who is ready to do whatever we ask of him,” Utupo said of Mallon. “He steps up. He’s that silent playmaker. He’s so fast with his first step that he’s disturbing a lot of what the offensive line wants to do.”
While Mallon and the front seven try to maintain that Red Swarm mentality against Northwood, senior defensive back Zion Smith and the rest of the Lakewood defense will have its hands full with the Timberwolves passing attack that keeps Miyata on the move.
However, Smith will be just as important on offense where he’s been a boost for the Lakewood rushing attack. Kaleb Foster has been the star with over 1,000 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns, but Smith has come on strong while playing through an injury.
“He’s so explosive when he hits that hole, he gets to the next level and he can make that cut with one foot and make you miss,” Utupo said of Smith. “We’re going to lean on him to have those explosive runs on Saturday.”
Smith also stepped up as a leader at halftime of the semifinal when he spoke to the team. The Lancers had been trailing the entire game and Smith wanted to remind his teammates of what’s most important.
“We play for all different reasons, and I just wanted them to know that whoever they play for they wouldn’t want to see them lose in the semifinals,” Smith said. “I play for my family, and my mother especially. She has done a lot for me since I was a baby. She’s taken care of me since she was 17… I just wanted (my teammates) to feel the same way I felt.”
In terms of statistics, Lakewood has put up some impressive numbers this year.
Junior linebacker Tyree McCowen has set the school record with 165 tackles in a season. Moore and safety Jace Casillas have also racked up more than 100 tackles. Moore leads the team with 25 tackles for loss. Of the 23 turnovers forced by the Lancers, Anthony Winston Jr. leads the squad with three interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Offensively, quarterback Brayden Downen is 268 yards away from 2,000 passing yards this season, but the use of his feet has taken his game to the next level. The senior has 528 yards rushing (6.6 ypc) and eight touchdowns. Senior receiver Takim Raye-Brown Jr. leads the Lancers with 31 catches for 360 yards. Ellis Gibson has a team-high three touchdown catches.
Come back here for LIVE UPDATES from the game on Saturday.