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Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Preview: Westlake at Oaks Christian

By Tim Haddock



The sequels are never quite as good as the originals. There are exceptions: “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Godfather II” come to mind.

The CIF-Southern Section Northern Division championship game between Oaks Christian and Westlake is a rematch of last year’s title game. It will be hard to exceed the hype, drama and outcome of the original.

The cast of players for Westlake has changed dramatically. Quarterback Justin Moore took over for Nick Isham, who started for Lousiana Tech this season as a freshman. Running back Dashon Hunt has taken over admirably for Tavior Mowry. Connor Cook has emerged as a big-play receiver in place of the reliable Nelson Spruce from last year’s Westlake team.

The Oaks Christian roster has some familiar names, including Arizona State-bound linebacker Carlos Mendoza, highly recruited receiver Jordan Payton and a double-threat at corner back and running back in Ishmael Adams.

These two teams know each other well. This championship game on Friday night at Oaks Christian will be the fourth meeting in the past two seasons.

Westlake (13-0) comes in as the overwhelming favorite and the No. 1-ranked team in the ESPN Los Angeles prep football Top 25. Several outlets have Westlake ranked as the No. 1 team in the state. The Warriors are 39-2 over the past three seasons and won the Northern Division championship in 2009.

Oaks Christian (11-2) is the reigning Northern Division champion, ranked fifth by ESPN Los Angeles and is making its ninth straight CIF championship game appearance. The Lions moved up to the Northern Division last year after competing in the Northwest Division. Oaks Christian is 6-2 in CIF championship games and playing for its seventh CIF football championship in the past nine years.

Westlake has the upper hand in regular-season games, with two wins, including convincingly, 43-21, in the fourth week of Marmonte League play.

But Oaks Christian won the Northern Division championship game against Westlake last year, 29-28. Mendoza had three touchdown runs against Westlake. The game was decided on a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Westlake’s Alex Ball that hit the right upright and bounced back on to the field. It was one of the few misses for the sure-footed Ball. He set the Southern Section record this season with 34 field goals over his career at Westlake.

Westlake coach Jim Benkert agreed that many of the skill players have developed quickly. But the players on the offensive and defensive lines are seasoned and experienced. Because of the play of the lines, particularly the offensive line, Moore and Hunt have been able to develop at a rapid pace.

As a freshman, Moore played in the CIF championship game in 2009 and rallied Westlake to a game-winning touchdown. He was forced into the game after Isham was injured in the first half. Moore contributed on offense as a running back and receiver in his sophomore season, but didn’t play much at quarterback until Isham graduated.

“He’s just been waiting for his time,” Benkert said.

Hunt played defensive back and sparingly at running back in his sophomore season. He emerged as a top defensive player in summer passing leagues and quickly became one of the top recruits committing to UCLA before his junior season.

But Benkert said he knew Hunt would be a spectacular offensive player when given the chance.

Cook had to learn the Westlake system quickly. He transferred to Westlake from Oaks Christian and has made contributions on offense, defense and special teams.

Benkert pointed out that Cook has only caught 17 passes this season, but 10 have gone for touchdowns.

“I don’t know if you can get a better ratio,” Benkert said.

Cook has scored 13 touchdowns. In addition to his 10 receiving touchdowns, he has returned two interceptions and a punt for touchdowns.

The new faces at Westlake have produced an undefeated season so far. Oaks Christian has a core of players who faced a similar situation last year, playing a favored Westlake team in the Northern Division championship game. They know they might be overmatched, but they are also confident in their team’s ability and game-plan.

“We don’t play the team that we’re matching up against,” said Adams, who leads Oaks Christian with nine rushing touchdowns. “We play ourselves and what we want to be, what we see as great. We are just going to come, practice hard all week, and just try to be great.”

Oaks Christian Bill Redell could only laugh when asked if he knew how to beat Westlake this year.

“We’ll show up and we’ll do the best we can,” Redell said. “If we play the best game we can, we’ll have a chance.”

The wild card for Oaks Christian in sophomore quarterback Brandon Dawkins. He is the new addition calling the shots for an experienced offensive unit that includes Payton and Mendoza.

Dawkins has passed for 2,506 yards and 29 touchdowns and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. But against Westlake on Oct. 6, he was 15-for-28 for 208 yards and threw two interceptions. Westlake gave him some fits, but that was eight games ago.

“We’re pumped,” Dawkins said. “We’re obviously coming back for them after that loss. We’re just really pumped to be able to go out there and play them again.”