When Casey Dakin studies game film these days, he gets a little confused. He doesn’t see the same Templeton High football team from weeks ago. The players have been wearing the same uniforms, but they’ve been playing differently.
“Watching film every week, it’s crazy to see how far we’ve come,” Dakin noted.
Week by week, the Eagles looked stronger, faster, smarter and more complete, which is something Dakin and others couldn’t say when they experienced three losses in the first five games of the season.
A lot has changed since those days. The Eagles were adapting to a new coach and life without Tyler Gray, last season’s star running back and linebacker. They were also using a two-quarterback system, making it tough for the offensive unit to get comfortable.
And then came Cabrillo, which handed the Eagles a 28-21 road loss in the Los Padres League opener Sept. 30. The two teams will meet again Saturday at 7 p.m. at Huyck Stadium in Lompoc in the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section Northwest Division playoffs.
The score of the first meeting indicates it was a close encounter, but, actually, the Conquistadores (10-2) — despite having running back T.J. Babauta operating on a hurt ankle — controlled the game with a 21-7 fourth-quarter lead before Templeton, as its coach put it, decided to wake up.
By then, it was too late.
The Eagles (7-5) were humbled, but the loss was a turning point.
“It was a lot of things,” said Templeton coach Dan Loney, who’s in his first year as head coach. “It was one of those things we needed to do. We needed to decide where we wanted to go. It brought us together closer. At that point, we decided losing wasn’t fun anymore.”
One big change was at quarterback. Alex Elterman became the lone signal caller and Andrew Garrettson shifted to wide receiver, though the Eagles remain a run-oriented team. The defense also got better, as the Eagles ended the regular season 3-2 and allowed less than 10 points in two of the three victories.
Then came the playoffs where Templeton has beaten Carpinteria and a powerful South Torrance team by a combined score of 99-41. The Eagles’ next challenge is Cabrillo, the team that helped alter their season.
“They’re going to be a tough game,” Templeton junior lineman Ross Berry said of the Conquistadores. “They’re well coached. It’ll be a challenge for us but we’ll be just fine.”
Like last week, when they faced a South Torrance team that beat them in the 2010 semifinals, Saturday is another chance at payback for the Eagles. Loney said Templeton didn’t truly challenge Cabrillo the first time until it was too late.
“I thought we came out flat. They didn’t,” Loney said about the Sept. 30 meeting. “They executed, we didn’t. We didn’t come alive until the fourth quarter. We don’t want to fall behind early again. We want to stay up enthusiastically and go with them, punch for punch.”
One way to do that is by containing Babauta, the Cabrillo running back who was not at full strength the first time his team faced Templeton. He still racked up 55 yards on 12 rushes with one touchdown.
The Conquistadores also have quarterback Henry Fienga (835 yards, eight passing touchdowns) and wide receiver Jeff Aldridge (23, receptions, 481 yards, six TDs), who, along with Babauta (97 rushes, 650 yards, 7 TDs in nine games), make up a force Templeton’s Loney calls “a three-headed monster.”
Those players are just another series of obstacles the Eagles need to overcome in a season full of them.
“Since day one, there were those people that said, ‘Oh, with Tyler Gray gone, you’re not going to make it very far,’ ” said Dakin, who is surprised by his team’s improvements in weekly game film sessions. “But from day one, we knew we’d make it this far with the coaches and players we have.
“We knew we’d exceed expectations.”