Westminster High School coach Jack Bowman keeps insisting that his football team is young and inexperienced, but if that is so, it certainly is coming of age at the expense of its opponents.
Unheralded at the start of the season, the Lions are ranked sixth in the Orange County Sportswriters Assn. poll. The latest to fall to the surprising Lions was El Toro, and fall hard the host Chargers did, dropping a 26-7 nonleague game to Westminster Friday night.
Apparently the only fans to appreciate the final score among the crowd of 2,000 at Mission Viejo Stadium would be those on the Westminster side, who watched the Lions take a 13-0 halftime lead and coast.
Despite the lopsided score, El Toro was in it until 5:27 left in the game.
At that point, the Chargers trailed, 19-7, but had the ball on Westminster's 31-yard line, facing a fourth-and-four after driving the ball down the field from their 27.
El Toro quarterback Bret Johnson attempted to get the first down by throwing the ball to a receiver near the left sideline, but Westminster defensive end Mike Cover intercepted and returned the ball 69 yards for a touchdown.
That effectively stifled El Toro's comeback and guaranteed the Lions their third straight win. Just as they did in their first two victories, Westminster won by effectively moving the ball on offense and stopping the run and pressuring the passer on defense.
"We were very happy with our defensive play tonight," Bowman said. "We used a four-man rush, and they were able to contain the quarterback. You saw that sophomore and just how good he was."
Indeed, El Toro quarterback Johnson is a fine thrower, but even he needs time to complete his passes. He spent the better part of Friday night either running out of the pocket or getting buried in it by the Westminster defense.
Johnson did throw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Chris Bailey early in the fourth quarter for the Chargers' only score, but the Lions intercepted him twice and sacked him six times. The constant pressure forced Johnson to throw early on many other passes, and the El Toro offense never found its rhythm.
Westminster, meanwhile, started junior quarterback Mike Austin. He played in the place of starter Steve Gulley, who was out with a minor injury sustained during last week's win over Pacifica.
Austin responded by directing the offense with confidence, not making any noticeable mistakes, and throwing two touchdown passes to Danny Saldana. The first one covered 21 yards in the first quarter and might have been intercepted had Saldana not outwrestled two El Toro defensive backs for the ball in the end zone.
Austin's second touchdown pass came in the second quarter, capping a 70-yard drive in which Austin twice rushed for first downs. Facing a second down and goal at El Toro's 4-yard line, Austin quickly stepped back in the pocket and fired a bullet over the middle to Saldana, who made a diving grab for the ball with a defender right on his back. Westminster led, 13-0.
"He did a very good job," Bowman said of Austin. "Now we know we have two good quarterbacks."
Westminster also has a good runner in tailback Dave Shelley, a 5-foot 10-inch, 175-pound senior. Shelley scored on a three-yard run in the third quarter following a fumble recovery by Lion linebacker Mark Smith.
It took the Lions only five plays to drive 44 yards for the score, with Austin's passes and Shelley's runs taking them to the goal line.
"We're real young," Bowman insisted, "but we have come a long way. We've got to improve, improve, improve. We've got to get even better before the season's over because we play some awfully good people along the way."
Opposing coaches are now saying the same thing about Westminster.