After a painful 28-21 loss last year in the CIF-Southern Section Northeast Division final to Rio Hondo Prep, Patrick Laird thought about all the things he’d do to get ready for his senior season.
Laird’s summer workout routine involved waking up at 5:30 a.m. to run at the Oceano Dunes.
He’d dash up a “secret spot,” a steep hill that only a few close to him know about. His conditioning regimen involved daily squats, cleans, and speed and agility exercises.
Laird worked out at the Cal Poly track, quickening his sprint speed to just under 4.7 in the
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40-yard dash, making him the fastest player on his team for the second straight year.
All the sweat translated into a monster season of 3,117 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground — making him the third-best rusher in California in yards gained and the ninth-best in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com.
Laird is this year’s Tribune County Football Player of the Year. For the second straight year, a Mission Prep player has taken the honor. Quarterback Tyler Baty earned it last year.
Laird’s achievements haven’t gone unnoticed by college programs. He has attracted recruiting interest from Cal Poly and multiple Ivy League programs, including Harvard, Brown and Dartmouth. UCLA has offered Laird a preferred walk-on spot.
His 4.35 grade-point average and football skills have piqued the interest of top-notch academic schools.
A year after Mission Prep lost 21 seniors to graduation, many assumed this could be a rebuilding season.
But Laird carried the team on his back offensively, willing them to an 11-3 overall record and a return to the division final.
Laird also played safety, snagging two interceptions, and helped lock down opponents’ passing attacks as part of an experienced secondary that included Evan Talbert, all-CIF-Southern Section defensive back Calvin Levisay and Bailey Hungerford.
“Pat was one of maybe two or three guys on the team who gave everything they had on every play going both ways,” Royals coach Chad Henry said. “It takes a lot physically, and especially mentally, to do that. And it’s easy not to run down field if the ball is on the other side of you. But he was able to push through and go hard all the time.”
The mental toughness displayed by Laird to will his team to victory happened almost from the start.
Mission Prep opened the season with a crushing 42-0 loss to Christian of El Cajon on the road, a team that went 12-1 and won the championship in Division 3 of the CIF-San Diego Section.
Laird then carried the ball 41 times for 229 yards against Rio Hondo in a 24-21 win in the second game.
The next week, he went for 248 yards on 36 carries and three touchdowns in a 36-33 win over St. Genevieve, the division’s fifth-ranked team.
The victories started an eight-game win streak that propelled the Royals into the playoffs and gave them the confidence to get back to the division championship game.
The final resulted in a 34-0 loss to Salesian after Laird badly sprained his ankle on the first play, limiting his effectiveness.
Henry said the wins against Rio Hondo and St. Genevieve were essential in giving the team the confidence boost it needed to have such a successful season.
“I think if we don’t win those two close games, our season could have gone a different direction,” Henry said. “Starting 0-3 could have deflated us. Instead, we were energized.”
Prior to the season, Henry envisioned Laird rushing for about 1,500 to 1,800 yards with a balanced pass-and-run offense.
But then senior receiver Trevor Fernandez broke his collarbone in a scrimmage, and sophomore quarterback Patrick Miller, though skilled, needed more time to develop to take on a bigger throwing role.
“I wasn’t supposed to be the main option,” Laird said. “I think when it really hit me was in the third game against St. Genevieve and we were down by two touchdowns midway through the third quarter. We didn’t pass for the rest of the game (and won by three).”
Mission Prep quickly had transformed itself from a sophisticated passing offense under Baty to a squad that could run on third-and-long and make first downs.
The added role meant risk of injury, but Laird had prepared his body for the punishment.
An improved offensive line opened up gaps for Laird that weren’t there last season.
“In practice, I would take some breaks with the coaches to just watch what the line was doing,” Laird said. “I watched how they blocked against different fronts. That helped with my patience in watching how plays develop and to find the best angles for long runs.”
Laird made a habit of getting through the defensive line and then using hesitation moves and jukes to bounce left, right, or burst up the middle for long runs.
“I wanted to find the best ways to get away from defenders and create bad angles for them to tackle me,” Laird said.
In each game, except for the injury-riddled final, Laird rushed for at least 100 yards, surpassing 300 yards in three contests.
Laird rushed for 343 yards and five touchdowns in a 68-51 win over Farmersville and added a 79-yard kickoff return for a score.
The six touchdowns in the game broke Mission Prep’s record of five touchdowns set by Laird’s older brother, Kevin, who plays free safety at Cornell. Patrick Laird had 36 total touchdowns this season.
Big Fish in Small Pond
Some people believe Laird’s statistics are inflated because of the smaller-school competition he plays against.
Henry admits that a school the size of Mission Prep, which has an enrollment of 320 students, likely couldn’t beat the upper-tier PAC 7 schools, some of which have enrollments of more than 2,000.
And Henry said they’d be challenged against a team like Morro Bay High, which has about 850 students and placed second in the Los Padres League this year.
Mission Prep enters the LPL next year, having not faced a local school the past two years.
But Henry vehemently contends the school’s competition is strong for its size. Nine of the 10 teams they faced in the regular season went to the playoffs, and two won their respective division titles — Christian and Farmersville.
Laird’s ability, regardless of the opponent, is a no-brainer for Henry.
“To rush for 3,000 yards in a season is something that not too many people do in the history of high school football,” Henry said. “The last I checked, it was something like 28 or 29 players. Everybody knew Laird was going to get the ball and he still ran for that many yards.”
Nipomo coach Russ Edwards also is a believer that Laird could have played on any team in the county and have been a star.
“He is a legit player and every team in the county would love to have had him playing for them,” Edwards said.
Bitter End, Overall Success
When Laird came limping off the field on the first play of the division final in downtown Los Angeles against Salesian, Henry knew it wasn’t good.
“At that point, it was about emotional management of the team,” Henry said.
Laird had torn ligaments, though he didn’t know it at the time. It was the final, and all season long the team had fixated on avenging last season’s 28-21 championship game loss against Rio Hondo.
On a couple of runs, Laird looked himself, bursting for a 14-yard gain, employing his bounce-to-the-outside move.
But then he collapsed at the end of that play, losing all strength in his foot, limping off the field.
The game was a disaster for Mission Prep. Salesian, a notably athletic squad with four elite FBS recruits, trounced the Royals 34-0.
Laird had accounted for 92 percent of the Royals’ rushing offense, based on season statistics, and 66 percent of their total offense, not to mention his defensive play.
“When he came off limping, you could tell that we just deflated,” Henry said. “We went from feeling the energy charge, and being excited and confident, to nothing.”
Laird sat in the front of the van quietly on the four-hour drive home. Last year, he had this season to think about on the ride home from Arcadia. This year, the Salesian game was it.
“I just feel bad for the guys on the team who won’t get to put on pads again,” Laird said.
But despite the loss, for a program that hadn’t achieved much postseason success for several years, the past two seasons have been a windfall — especially this one when expectations weren’t as high.
“A lot of people around school even said this year we wouldn’t be that good because of all the guys we lost,” Laird said. “That just made me mad. That made the guys on the team work that much harder in the offseason to prove that we were a good team.”
COUNTY PLAYER OF THE YEAR
RB – Patrick Laird, Mission Prep, Sr.
ALL-COUNTY FIRST TEAM
QB – Robbie Berwick, Atascadero, Sr.
RB – Izaiah Cooks, Atascadero, Sr.
RB – Nathanial Harris, Paso Robles, Jr.
RB – Tristan Collins, Morro Bay, Sr.
FB – Jimmy Pacheco, Paso Robles, Sr.
WR – Sean St. Denis, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
WR – Evan Talbert, Mission Prep, Sr.
OL – Alan Hurst, Atascadero, Sr.
OL – Jordan Burbank, Paso Robles, Jr.
OL – Christian Cockrell, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
OL – Dorien Banks, Paso Robles, Sr.
OL – Jake Smith, Atascadero, Sr.
K – Cole Ramey, Arroyo Grande, Jr.
All-purpose – Bailey Gaither, Paso Robles, Jr.
DL — Bryson Downs, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
DL — Joel Wood, Atascadero, Sr.
DL — Drake Phillips, Paso Robles, Sr.
DL – Steve Howard, San Luis Obispo, Sr.
DL – Jordan Liberatore, Morro Bay, Jr.
LB — Ryan Lombardi, Atascadero, Sr.
LB — Grant Alton, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
LB — Tyler Auerbach, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
LB – Karson Block, Atascadero, Jr.
DB — Michael Jordano, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
DB — Taylor Holden, Paso Robles, Sr.
DB — Michael Rasmussen, Atascadero, Jr.
DB — Calvin Levisay, Mission Prep, Sr.
P – Bryce Pasky, Paso Robles, Jr.
QB – Mikey Gutierrez, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
RB – Sawyer Scott, San Luis Obispo, Sr.
RB – Jordan Harrigan, Arroyo Grande, Jr.
RB — Nate Greenelsh, San Luis Obispo, Jr.
FB – Joe De La Rosa, Arroyo Grande, So.
WR – Brandon Hettenhouser, Nipomo, Jr.
WR – Cooper Kuhnle, Atascadero, Jr.
OL – David Marter, San Luis Obispo, Sr.
OL – Matthew Wetnet, Arroyo Grande, Sr.
OL – Daniel Perlette, Morro Bay, Sr.
OL – Michael Renner, Nipomo, Sr.
OL — Shereef Wahba, Mission Prep, Jr.
K – Justin McKeague, Mission Prep, So.
DL — Brandon Cutler, San Luis Obispo, Sr.
DL — Joseph Casacca, Mission Prep, Jr.
DL — Michael Horne, Paso Robles, Jr.
DL — Uriel Jimenez, Atascadero, Sr.
DL — Danny Rodriguez, Coast Union, Sr.
LB — Tyler Moore, Atascadero, Sr.
LB — Josh Oliver, Paso Robles, Jr.
LB — Jack Judge, Morro Bay, Sr.
LB – Chase Young, Atascadero, Sr.
DB – Louie Thek, Atascadero, Sr.
DB — Bradley Mickey, Arroyo Grande, So.
DB — Parker Gray, Paso Robles, Jr.
DB — Johnny Edwards, San Luis Obispo, Sr.
P — Tommy Carr, Atascadero, Jr.
QB – Dan Beavers, Morro Bay, Sr.; Matt Albright, Nipomo, Jr.; Gunnar Griffin, Paso Robles, Jr.; Angel Avina, Coast Union, Sr.
RB – Christian Hauser, Templeton, Jr.; Lane Sutherland, Coast Union, Sr.; Chris Owens, Nipomo, Jr.
FB – Ethan Hicks, Atascadero, Jr.
WR – Nick Kimball, Nipomo, Jr.; Harrison Labastida, Nipomo, Jr.; Quinten Raethke, Coast Union, Sr.; Emmany Godinez, Coast Union, Sr.
OL – Forrest Pottmeyer, Mission Prep, Sr.; Jared Springer, Nipomo, Sr.; Tyler West, Atascadero, Jr., Adrian Astorga, Morro Bay, Jr.
K – Jason Alvarado, Nipomo, Sr.
DL – Max Schneider, Templeton, Sr.; Brandon Emanuelson, Templeton, Sr
LB – Kia Givoglie, Nipomo, Jr.; Bryson Messer, Templeton, Jr.; John Renner, Nipomo, Sr.
DB — Peyton Witcher, Nipomo, Jr.; Edgar Rivera, Morro Bay, Jr.; Zach Smith, Morro Bay, Sr.; Bailey Hungerford, Mission Prep, Jr.; Sam Neely, Atascadero, Sr.
P — Oscar Catalan, Coast Union, Sr.