Note to readers: Tim Lins was interviewed for this preview last Sunday; Jim Benkert, on Thursday.
When Westlake and Moorpark play football against one another, it’s usually a big game.
That’s the case again this year.
Westlake travels to face the Musketeers tonight. Both teams are headed to the playoffs, but for the loser of this contest, the fate might just be playing against one of the best teams in the country in the first round of the CIF playoffs.
With the Marmonte League’s ascension to the vaunted Pac 5 for the postseason, a fourth-place finish – which is what a loss tonight amounts to – could lead to playing one of the Top 4 seeds in the Pac 5.
Several of the Pac 5 teams are ranked in the Top 20 in the nation by Maxpreps.
“We know we’re in the playoffs,” said Moorpark head coach Tim Lins. “Who we’re going to play is really out of our control. It’s out of our hands. (But) we want to put ourselves in the best position – which would be to win the game – and to be in the third spot.
“That’s what we’re aiming for and that’s what Westlake’s aiming for, too. All we can do is worry about Westlake and, more so, worry about ourselves and how we’re going to prepare for this football game.”
Westlake head coach Jim Benkert agreed with his counterpart regarding the game's playoff ramifications.
“It’s a big football game from the standpoint of playoff standings,” he said. “Who gets the better seed going into the playoffs?”
Moorpark (7-2 overall, 3-1 Marmonte League West) and Westlake (6-3, 3-1 Marmonte League East) each finished in second-place in the newfangled Marmonte League with its east and west divisions.
Oaks Christian (8-1, 4-0) and St. Bonaventure (8-1, 4-0) finished in first-place and will play for the league title tonight. The loser of that game will be the league's second-place finisher. The winner of Westlake – Moorpark is the third-place team.
Neither Moorpark nor Westlake will get a home game in the first round of the playoffs, but the winner might get a second-place team that doesn’t pack the wallop of what tonight’s losing team will face.
The two teams come into the game with distinctly different experiences last week. It’s easier to describe what Westlake did last week because they simply had a bye week.
“That bye week last week was really critical for us because we were able to nurse our injuries,” said Benkert. “That gave our kids a big-time chance to heal up.”
Moorpark did travel to Westlake last week, but it was to play Oaks Christian. Despite high hopes, the Musketeers came back to town on the wrong end of a 55-7 rout.
“They were just a little bit better than us,” Lins said. “They were more ready to play and a couple of big plays and a couple of mistakes on our part and the game got away from us. But I think they outplayed us and we have to get back to work.”
Benkert knew what happened to Moorpark because, in a way, it happened to his team in the first two games of a three-game losing streak in September.
Before going toe to toe with St. Bonaventure on September 28, which was a 31-23 loss, La Serna beat Westlake 38-9, on September 14, and Crespi defeated them, 43-17, the next week.
“It’s one of those things where the bottom just falls out,” Benkert said. “(Moorpark) is a much better football team than was indicated by what the score was (against Oaks Christian), so we’re going to get a completely different team.”
Two days after the game, Lins sounded upbeat as he strategized for Westlake.
“We’ve got to regroup,” he said. “We’ve got a really good football team up ahead of us. Westlake’s a very good football team. So we’re going to have to forget this loss and move ahead.”
Lins was asked if it might be easier for his players than the coaches to absorb and respond to such a resounding defeat. His players, after all, showed great resiliency after losing to Palos Verdes.
“Well, we don’t have to play, so that’s the easy part for us,” he said. “But hopefully that’s true and they’ll be able to put that game behind them and give their best in terms of preparation for this week.”
Although he knows, and stated, how important this game is in terms of playoff implications, Lins was wary of looking at anything in front of him except film of Westlake.
“We’ve just got to stay in a week-at-a-time mode,” he said. “(When) we get ahead of ourselves, we get in trouble. So we can’t afford to get ahead of ourselves right now.”
He noted that Westlake, now riding a three-game winning streak, lost to three good teams in its stretch of mid-to-end of September defeats.
“They’ve played a pretty tough schedule,” Lins said. “The teams that have beaten them are all highly-ranked teams. La Serna, Crespi and St. Bonaventure – those are very good teams.
“They’re playing pretty good football,” Lins added. “They’re physical, they’re obviously well-coached. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Warriors have used three quarterbacks this fall, a senior, a junior and a sophomore. The senior Neil Uskali hasn’t played the past two games due to injuries and isn’t expected to play tonight.
Benkert said he hadn’t decided prior to Thursday’s practice, which of his two quarterbacks, junior Tommy Gonzales or sophomore Danny Hong would start against the Musketeers.
“We’re going into practice today, really as the unknown,” he said, adding that both have improved as the season has progressed.
“They have a better grasp of the offense,” he said. “They have a lot more confidence. And I think they’re both looking for another opportunity – especially in a game like this, where there is a lot at stake.”
Shayne Henley, a two-way starter on the Warriors' line, and Dylan Ray (outside linebacker) are expected to play tonight. Henley missed the previous two games and Ray is back from a shoulder injury.
Dashon Hunt, a senior running back/cornerback, had his first pain-free game two weeks ago, a 30-7 win over Simi Valley on October 19, said the Westlake coach.
“But pain-free and in shape are two different things,” said Benkert, who acknowledged Hunt’s importance: “He’s the heart and soul of our football team.”
For Moorpark, senior Aaron Stanton, a three-year starter at running back, who was playing hurt early in the season, ran for 91 yards on 19 carries against Oaks Christian. He has been steady for the Musketeers all season.
Stanton and Austin Cole, Moorpark’s senior quarterback, who struggled against the Lions, will probably need to have big games for Moorpark.
Cole will hope to find his primary receivers – Chad Hansen, Tyler Collet and Brendan Hodgson – more often than he did against Oaks Christian.
The Moorpark defense – its heart and soul being senior linebacker Tony Mack – which had been so dominant in four successive games prior to the loss, will look to redeem itself as it did after the Musketeers’ loss at Palos Verdes.
“Fortunately, it’s at home, so that’s good for us,” Lins said on Sunday. “But we still have to prepare. It’s important for us to have a good week of practice.”
Both Westlake and Moorpark will travel to their opening round CIF playoff game, for the first time ever as part of the Pac 5, next Friday.
But the loser of tonight’s game will probably travel a much tougher road.