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Football Lakewood

Football Preview: Lakewood Lancers

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

The Lancers have all of the earmarks of a healthy and growing football program. They have a few scholarship athletes, most of their coaching staff has returned and they’re coming off of a CIF Championship game appearance.

Unfortunately, Lakewood lost that game at home and it’s been a motivating factor during the offseason.

“The message going into this year is ‘finishing the job’,” Lakewood coach Justin Utupo said. “It was great to be in the championship game and have that experience. But we have that sour taste still left in our mouth about losing it, especially being the host team. I think we let a great opportunity slip away.”

That attitude has created a very competitive atmosphere during Lakewood practices recently, and the first day of pads last week featured a few scuffles that coaches needed to break up. But right after those drills, the Lancers went right back to work.

“We love the energy and competitiveness just as long as it’s positive,” Utupo added. “We’re so tired of hitting each other and competing against each other, we are anxious to play against another opponent so the vibe is we’re hungry.”

The top player returning for Lakewood has to be linebacker Tyree McCowen. The 6’0” 193-pound senior ranked Top 5 in California last season with 173 total tackles. Utupo said his defense will lean on McCowen a lot this season and feed off of his energy as he matures into a senior leader.

McCowen will be joined by 6’2” 216-pound junior EJ Balthazar and sophomore Kaelib Verduzco as the probable starting linebackers. Balthazar averaged 6.5 tackles per game last season, and Utupo said that Verduzco is the fastest linebacker on the team who will also be very valuable on special teams.

In front of them will be a very young defensive line led by 6’1” 250-pound junior Rovana Tufugafale. He played a lot last year, and will help bring along guys like sophomores Evan Boyd and Caleb Tafua. Boyd will be a 6’3” 275-pound anchor on the interior, and Tafua will play both sides of the ball. The natural tight end already has interest from multiple big college programs like USC.

Seniors Anthony Winston Jr. and David Voorhies will line up at the corner back spots while sophomores Tiwan Jones and Ayeven Aupiu will be the safeties behind them to round out the defense.


Offensively, Lakewood has a ton of potential to put up some big numbers this season, but they’re still not sure who will be the starting quarterback. Sophomore Kade Casillas and senior Valentino Saenz-Castruita have been battling for the job all offseason. Casillas is the more mobile signal caller with a natural talent for escaping pressure. Saenz-Castruita transferred from Long Beach Poly where he got a lot of late game experience last season. Utupo said they’ll make that starting decision after their scrimmage against JSerra next week.

San Jose State commit Jay Tuala-Harris will be the senior leader of the offensive line at right tackle, and his junior brother Jayshaun Tauala-Harris will be at left guard. Senior center Isaac Pascual is a returning starter, sophomore right guard Joe Joe Togiola is a key newcomer, and the job for left tackle is currently between sophomore RJ Hutchinson and 6’5” 300-pound freshman Exodus Sefo.

Once again the Lakewood rushing game will be by committee as senior Charles Wright, junior Nytrell Miller and junior Jacob Hunter have all shown the ability to produce out the backfield. Wright is a transfer from Mayfair and Hunter is a transfer from Paramount.

The leader of the receiving corps is undoubtedly J.T. Dacoud. The senior averaged over 13 yards per reception last season and Utupo said he’s been practicing at a high level.

“He’s the full package with length, hand strength, physicality and he’s getting better at adjusting routes in scramble drills,” Utupo added. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends the season as one of the top receivers in our area.”

Dacoud will be joined by Tafua, junior Mayfair transfer Cecil Smith and returning senior starter Sean Lane at the other receiver positions.

Utupo also said that his team may attempt more field goals this season with the return of junior kicker Andrew Heang, who has gotten a lot stronger in the offseason.

Lakewood has the same schedule it did last season when it struggled early on, and then found its rhythm late. 

“Growth throughout the year and competitiveness is why we made the playoff run, so growing week to week will once again make this a successful season,” Utupo said.

VIDEO: Lakewood Football Preview 2023

Probable Starters:


QB - Kade Casillas (So.) / Valentino Saenz-Castruita (Jr.)

RB - Charles Wright (Sr.) / Nytrell Miller (Jr.)

WR - J.T. Dacoud (Sr.) / Sean Lane (Sr.) / Cecil Smith (Jr.)

TE - Caleb Tafua (So.)

OL - Jay Tauala-Harris (Sr.)

OL - Joe Joe Togiola (So.)

OL - Isaac Pascual (Sr.)

OL - Jayshaun Tauala-Harris (Jr.)

OL - RJ Hutchinson (So.)

OL - Exodus Sefo (Fr.)


DL - Rovana Tufugafale (Jr.) / Evan Boyd (So.) / Caleb Tafua (So.)

LB - Tyree McCowen (Sr.) / EJ Balthazar (Jr.)

DB - Anthony Winston Jr. (Sr.) / Tiwan Jones (So.) / David Voorhies (Sr.) / Ayeven Aupiu (So.)

2023 Lakewood Lancers Football Schedule

8/17 - at Orange Vista

8/25 - at San Dimas

9/1 - vs. Laguna Hills

9/8 - vs. Mayfair

9/15 - vs. Long Beach Poly

9/22 - vs. Cabrillo

9/29 - at Jordan

10/6 - at Millikan

10/20 - vs. Wilson

10/27 - at Compton

Massive Long Beach Football Preview
JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.