If you drive on the 101 freeway north toward Ventura and stop in Camarillo, you’ll discover what the state of high school football used to look like.
“We’re kind of normal,” coach Jack Willard quipped.
In 2015, the Scorpions had a once-in-a-lifetime team of mostly seniors who stayed together for four years. They won their first 15 games before losing in a state championship bowl game. The next year, the team went 2-8. That’s called a rebuilding year, something that no longer seems to exist at certain schools because any holes left by graduating seniors keep getting filled by transfer students.
At Camarillo, Willard just goes by whoever shows up, which means rebuilding years still happen.
“We play with our kids,” he said. “You just kinda of know who you got and don’t have expectations of anyone coming in. If you have a good sophomore and he’s mentally and physically ready to play varsity, you move him up and take your lumps.”
In 2017, Willard played a group of sophomores on varsity. That team went 5-6 with several close defeats. Now they’ve become three-year senior starters, and 2019 is looking a lot like 2015 — another special season for the Scorpions.
On Friday night, as a full moon glowed from above Moorpark College, unbeaten Camarillo faced a strong challenge from unbeaten Oxnard. The game wasn’t decided until Grady Liddell, one of those three-year starters, raced in from the left side and blocked a 32-yard field-goal attempt as time expired, enabling Camarillo to preserve a 26-25 victory.
“I ran my gap and made a play,” Liddell said. “I was really fired up.”
It was a marvelous game between two Ventura County public schools that have been playing each other since 1961. Camarillo (4-0) rallied from a 19-14 halftime deficit. Colton Schlimgen made a 23-yard field goal with 2:39 left to give the Scorpions their 26-25 lead after Xavier Harris ran 39 yards for an Oxnard touchdown and a 25-23 Yellowjackets advantage.
Throughout, it was Camarillo’s three-year starters maintaining their poise and coming through. Quarterback James McNamara completed 23 of 36 passes for 217 yards. He repeatedly delivered clutch throws under pressure. Running back Jesse Valenzuela scored two touchdowns, rushed for 81 yards and caught six passes for 57 yards.
“We had a lot of tough losses as sophomores,” McNamara said. “As seniors, we now know what to do.”
Oxnard’s Harris rushed for 126 yards in 17 carries and quarterback Jaden Jones scored two touchdowns and passed 60 yards to Aaron Fontes for another score.
Camarillo is ranked No. 2 in Southern Section Division 4 and Oxnard (3-1) is No. 6 in Division 5. Both teams will be tough in the postseason.
You always know how good a head coach is by the assistants he hires. Willard’s offensive coordinator is former Thousand Oaks coach Mike Leibin. His defensive coordinator is Rob Wilford, who was a longtime assistant to Tim Lins at Moorpark.
The toughest game ahead could be Nov. 1 against Simi Valley Grace Brethren, ranked No. 1 in Division 3. But few will be more exciting than Friday night. The celebration in the bleachers and the fans running onto the field won’t be soon forgotten.