During his senior year of high school as the Lakewood Lancers quarterback, Matt Nuez wanted to contribute to something that the Lakewood football program had desperately wanted to accomplish: beating the Poly Jackrabbits’ historic football team.
“My senior year in 1988, we lost to players like Willie McGinest and Michael Carter,” Nuez said. “We lost 29-28 in my senior game. We had a 29-yard field goal that would’ve won the game, but [referees] called ‘no good.’ We had them beat.”
What made the matchup between Lakewood and Poly such an intense rivalry for Nuez was seeing many of his middle school friends, who played for the Jackrabbits in high school, winking at him from across the field.
“To have the coaching and athletes they have—what a great company—that’s why they’re so difficult to beat,” Nuez said of Poly’s football program, famous for developing the most eventual NFL starters in the nation.
Twenty-one years later, Matt Nuez returned to his alma mater, assistant coaching the varsity football team under the leadership of the already-legendary Thadd MacNeal, who came to Lakewood from a winning football tradition at Los Alamitos High School.
“He did unbelievable things with the [Lakewood] program and made us relevant very quick,” Nuez said of MacNeal.
When MacNeal took over the Lakewood football program, the first question he was asked was when he was going to beat Poly.
“I’ve never played for second place,” MacNeal said. “We had a lot of great players on our team and the excitement for the [Lakewood-Poly] rematch grew each year.”
In 2009, the revamped Lakewood football team was in its fourth year under MacNeal’s direction, and it was time for the long-awaited rematch against Poly. It had been 27 years since Lakewood had beat Poly, and over 10,000 bystanders watched the rematch under the lights on what would be a magical night on Oct. 9, 2009. The air was thick with anticipation that October evening.
“We had to play at Vets Stadium because [Lakewood’s] John Ford Stadium couldn’t fit that amount of people,” MacNeal said. “[Vets Stadium] filled to the top.”
The Jackrabbits were riding an 80-game win streak in Moore League, but Lakewood had many returning stars and several Division I college prospects—notably, Lancers quarterback Jesse Scroggins, who subsequently played for USC, tight end Justin Utupo, eventual starter at Notre Dame, Kevin Anderson, who would go on to be a receiver for Arizona State, and defensive back Dion Bailey, another eventual USC Trojan. With the talent and discipline, the Lancers were prone to become Poly’s streak-busters.
“Poly had some great players too, and we knew that even with our best, with their tradition and coaching, it was going to be a really tough game,” MacNeal said.
At halftime, Poly led Lakewood 14-7. Then, the Lancers put on a show.
Lakewood’s opening possession in the third quarter quickly brought the score to 14-13 when Scroggins passed to Kevin Anderson on a fourth down, resulting in a touchdown. The Lancers had marched 60 yards downfield on that drive.
“To take the lead, we converted a fourth down in the fourth quarter,” MacNeal recalled. “Ron Lewis caught a fourth-down pass and then we scored on that drive, converting a 2-point conversion—we went with the speed option on that play.”
But the drama wasn’t over yet. Kevin Anderson had a 70-yard reverse called back.
“I guess, looking back, the game wouldn’t have been as tight if we had converted that incredible play,” MacNeal said. “It was nullified by a penalty that we didn’t agree with when we looked at the film after the game.”
Thankfully, it didn’t matter as the Lancers held the Jackrabbits and controlled the line of scrimmage. The game ended with a Lakewood win 21-14, and everyone from the Lakewood sideline rushed onto the field.
“We had so many teachers and ex-players on our sideline, plus our superintendent, and everyone was really excited,” MacNeal recalled. “It was such a great Long Beach event—two high schools that had a long-existing football tradition having a great football game.”
Matt Nuez, who coached and watched from the sidelines that night, remembers the sheer mayhem of it all.
“It turned into an organized party marching down Carson Street with the Lakewood band and everything. It was pretty neat,” he said.
Things have changed since that fall night in 2009. MacNeal is now the head football coach at Carlsbad High School, with the same Lancers mascot, ironically. Nuez currently is the head baseball coach at Los Alamitos High School. Although positions and titles chang as time passes, the excitement of that classic Long Beach football game lives on for those who experienced it.
“The experience under those lights—there’s nothing that could ever replace that,” Nuez said. “It’s so grand, and as you become that old man, you really appreciate those bonds and relationships that you made on both sides of the ball.”