This week’s Friday Night Lights will shine with all the anticipation of Christmas tree lights for Conner Lee and the rest of the Dos Pueblos High football team: The prize of a Channel League football co-championship is within sight.
But Lee would prefer that coach Doug Caines stop calling him a reindeer.
“He’s quite an outdoorsman, and he informed me that reindeer aren’t actually as aggressive as I thought,” Caines said during Monday’s Athletic Round Table press luncheon. “I often refer to him as a reindeer just in terms of the way he runs behind his shoulder pads.
“He’s informed me that reindeers are actually extremely docile. He absolutely runs behind those horns, so I just want to make sure we get that right.”
Lee will be one of the strongest and fastest bucks pulling the Chargers’ sleigh into Friday’s showdown at Scott O’Leary Stadium against first-place Santa Barbara. He’s a slotback on offense and linebacker on defense.
He rushed for touchdowns in crucial, back-to-back victories of 14-12 over San Marcos and 33-14 against Santa Ynez. He also made the pivotal defensive plays in both games: a game-saving tackle on a two-point conversion run by the Royals and an interception return for a TD against the Pirates.
“Over the last two weeks he’s just been amazing,” Caines said. “He had an amazing 88-yard interception. As he’s catching the ball, the receiver is trying to tackle him and he sidesteps him, switches the ball, stiff-arms him and out-runs the rest of the Santa Ynez team.
“It was really a special, special play for us.”
Lee is just glad to be on the field after undergoing labrum surgery on both shoulders last spring.
“I’m getting up to full speed again,” he said. “I’m feeling really good and starting to play at the level that I know I can play.”
Caines admits that he has to pull the reins on his reindeer at times.
“He’s the kind of kid who will go until he drops,” he said. “He had to get one shoulder done, wait a couple of months, and then get the other side done and pray that he’d be ready to play football.
“You’d never know that because he’s not going to complain about it, he’s not going to make excuses as to why this and why that. He just lines up and gladiates, and it’s just a testament to his toughness.”
Lee, a 5-foot-11 senior, actually suffered his shoulder injuries during his sophomore wrestling season. He had just helped the DP football team make its run to the 2017 CIF-Southern Section Division 10 final when he took a bad fall during a wrestling meet in Fresno.
“I lost my first match to a guy that I’d beaten the previous year,” he recalled. “He did an illegal move and slammed me on my shoulder twice, the ref just didn’t call it the first time.
“I had to wrestle five more matches to get to the third-place match and was in pain that whole day. I’d never before had a serious injury so I just continued with the pain. I finally got to be too much in both shoulders so I had them checked out.”
The labral cartilage was torn in both shoulders. He underwent surgery on his right shoulder in March and on the left in May.
“I was going to rehab like twice a day during the summer, just to make sure I was up to par with my strength,” Lee said.
He wasn’t thrilled about being held out of the first three quarters of a 19-0 loss to Rio Mesa in the season opener. The Chargers lost all five of their nonconference games, which featured highly ranked opponents such as Pacifica and Righetti. And even when DP opened Channel League play with a big win over Cabrillo, Lee took a shot to the head while scoring the game’s final touchdown.
“It shocked my whole back,” he said. “I had extreme pain, and got the wind knocked out of me, too. I just couldn’t breathe.
“But I still got over the goal line, which was the most important thing.”
He sat out nearly all of the Lompoc game the following week but returned to play both offense and defense against San Marcos and Santa Ynez.
He gives DP a big one-two punch with fellow senior Udy Loza, who won Round Table Athlete of the Week honors after rushing for 167 yards and two TDs against Santa Ynez.
“These two athletes have just been lighting it up for us,” Caines said. “We’ve started to click at the right time and a lot of that comes down to players like Udy.
“He’s a yes-sir, no-sir kind of guy. He shows up first in the weight room. He works hard. He works in the classroom. He’s humble. On the field, he’s special. He’s electric.”
Lee isn’t the only Charger whose return from injury gives DP hope for an upset this Friday over Santa Barbara, which moved up to No. 3 team in this week’s CIF-SS Division 8 poll. Two-way lineman Emiliano Carbajal came back from a hyper-extended elbow to help pave the way for Loza’s back-to-back, 100-plus-yard rushing games.
“Milo has come back into the fold of these last two games and really kind of just solidified our offensive and defensive fronts,” Caines said.
Nobody knows the Dons better than Lee, who chatted with Santa Barbara junior Ty Montgomery during Monday’s luncheon at Harry’s Plaza Café. Montgomery won the previous Round Table Athlete of the Week Award for his heroics in the Oct. 18 win over Lompoc.
“Ty is one of my best friends,” Lee said.” I actually played with him on my eighth-grade (YFL) team, when he was in seventh grade – we were the Santa Barbara Red Saints. I just remember me and him competing in the sprints every day at the end of practice.
“It’s going to be fun because we go way back, going head-to-head in each practice.”
Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone uses Montgomery, a two-way player who kicked the winning field goals against Lompoc, just as much as Caines plays Lee.
“I ask him to do a lot, and he does not come off the field,” Stone said. “He was instrumental in our win at Lompoc and in our last game against Cabrillo.”
He’s happy to get him for one more season — and sophomore left tackle Johnny Perez for two more. He’s the younger brother of running back Justin Perez.
LUNCHEON NOTES: Bishop Diego’s Luke Knightley, like Lee, has come back from an injury to play key roles as a linebacker and receiver. His efforts helped the Cardinals score a key Camino League win at Moorpark last Friday.
“Last season he suffered a season-ending leg injury at the very start of the Moorpark game, so being able to be a part of this victory on Friday had to be especially sweet for him,” said Dillan Bennett, speaking for coach Tom Crawford.
Safety Lucas Dutcher had one of the biggest defensive plays of the season last week.
“With 20 seconds to go, he was part of the tackle causing a fumble at our own two-yard line,” Bennett said. “And then he had the wits to get up from that tackle, sprint and dive on the loose ball in the end zone, sealing the victory.”
Bennett’s girls’ volleyball team has advanced to Wednesday’s CIF-SS Division 8 quarterfinals for the first time in two decades.
“That’s according to CIF, but I’ve been told it’s actually longer,” he said.
Leading the way is freshman Siena Urzua, a club soccer player, who won Athletic Round Table Female Athlete of the Week honors.
Freshmen Kent Dunn and Michael Wang stepped up for the Laguna Blanca football team last week.
“Thursday, the day before our game, our starting quarterback and captain went down as he’s holding a PAT kick,” coach Shane Lopes said. “I’ve never seen that happen before. The two guys who stepped up for him were both ninth-graders.”
Dunn played quarterback while Wang stepped in to play linebacker.
Both the boys and girls cross country teams at Dos Pueblos won meet championships in Riverside last week. Coach Nash Jimenez cited the efforts this season of Peter Sperer and Logan Beckstrand with the boys, and Maddie Choi and Estella Ye with the girls.
In girls soccer, senior midfielders Erika Estrada and Yaritza Santes have Carpinteria coach Lucy Carleton optimistic about the upcoming season.
“These two girls are definitely going to be leaders,” she said. “They’re both super conscientious students, and they have been the most consistent in all our preseason workouts and practices over the summer.”