The Braves are now heading toward a county where their football season ended one year ago, with the hope that this time they can clear the O.C hurdle.
Lompoc, 11-0 overall after pulling past Camarillo 42-17 to open the CIF Southern Section Division 3 playoffs, will head to Orange County for its quarterfinal matchup against Lake Forest El Toro. The Friday contest at ETHS is set for 7 p.m.
Throughout the whole off-season and during practices inside Huyck Stadium, Brave football players have preached the word “finish” as their motivational spark. The reason: Lompoc’s last trip to the O.C. ended in devastation – as the Braves lost an 18-point lead against Corona del Mar and fell 35-34 in the CIF Southern Section D4 semifinals.
Head coach Andrew Jones already is aware this El Toro team is capable of being a handful.
"We're going to have our hands full, but this is Division 3," Jones said by phone on Tuesday night. "Treating this game as a business trip is crucial."
That trip will be a four hour drive for the Braves, nearly similar to their trek to Costa Mesa one year ago to face the Sea Kings.
El Toro, out of the Sea View League, is currently 7-4 on the season and went 3-1 in league games while facing the likes of O.C. heavyweight Capistrano Valley, Aliso Niguel, Dana Hills and Laguna Hills.
The Chargers also had to go through traditional Southern California juggernauts Corona del Mar and Mission Viejo during the non-league slate – losing to both teams by a combined score of 88-32.
"They're definitely battle tested. The four losses were to quality opponents," Jones said.
Defensively, El Toro has surrendered an average of 25.6 points per game – which includes last week’s 50-45 thriller over Villa Park.
The Chargers have this claim in the city of Lake Forest: They’ve produced standout quarterbacks. The school that once produced NFL quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Steve Stenstrom is now creating its latest signal-caller incarnation in senior Cooper Jones – who has 3,082 passing yards, 36 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Lompoc and Jones already know this is an offense that can score at will. El Toro has averaged 36 points per game with Jones and a deep group of wide receivers at its disposal.
Leading the perimeter playmakers is Noah Aguilar, who has 58 catches for 978 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Chargers’ other top targets are seniors Austin Derrico (42 catches, 745 yards and 11 touchdowns) and Shane McLaughlin (39 receptions, 834 yards and 10 touchdowns). Jones had high praises for the Charger offense.
"They're a high powered offense," Jones said. "The quarterback is very accurate and throws a really good ball. They're similar to St. Joseph."
Jones adds that El Toro prefers to have Cooper Jones lining up five yards behind the center, not directly behind him.
"If they're at the one-yard line, they're in shotgun," Jones said.
Safety Jimmy Gardner has the task of trying to slow down this high-powered offensive machine. Gardner believes this Charger team is a mirror image of Los Padres League rival St. Joseph.
"They match up pretty evenly," Gardner said.
El Toro does have this defensive cornerstone the Braves will look to block: Defensive end Raymond Carpenter, who has 13 sacks on the year. The 6-foot, 200-pound Carpenter leads a defensive unit that has tallied 37 sacks this season. In the secondary, junior cornerback Jake Landry leads the unit there with his seven interceptions.
But once again, the theme for the Braves is finishing - something that Brave players like Ruben Cortez admitted wasn't accomplished last season.
"We just have to do our assignments and we can't allow them to have big plays," Cortez said. "On the field last game, we were saying 'Finish.' That's been our motto. Don't stop until the whistle blows."
The winning team will face the victor of the La Canada St. Francis/Citrus Hill contest on Black Friday in the semifinals at Huyck Stadium.