All-Empire Large School Football: Casa Grande’s Lawson was dynamic leader on and off the field

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Casa Grande's JaJuan Lawson will be playing football at New Mexico this fall. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Casa Grande’s JaJuan Lawson will be playing football at New Mexico this fall. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Trent Herzog has been watching Casa Grande football for 25 years, since he was in middle school. Herzog was a long-time defensive coordinator under Rick O’Brien, and has been Gauchos head coach since 2009, so he’s well qualified to deliver the following pronouncement.

“I think JaJuan Lawson is the best player to ever play at Casa Grande,” Herzog said. “And if he’s not the best, he’s the most important.”

Certainly, the Gauchos had a year like no other in 2013. They went undefeated (7-0) in their second season in the North Bay League, and still hadn’t been beaten when they faced Miramonte in the North Coast Section Division 2 championship game. Top-seeded Casa took a lead into the fourth quarter of that game, but ultimately came up short. Had they won, the Gauchos likely would have played for the NorCal title.

Along the way to a 13-1 record, Lawson passed for 2,203 yards and 23 touchdowns, with just two interceptions. He completed 67.4 percent of his attempts.

A true double threat, he also ran for 1,152 yards and 13 touchdowns. The three-year starter leaves Casa Grande with 6,277 passing yards and 2,189 rushing yards.

“Holy cow, he could throw the football, he could run it — the kid could do everything,” Rancho Cotate coach Ed Conroy said.

At 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, with a 40-yard dash time in the mid-4.4s, Lawson is headed to New Mexico on a full athletic scholarship.

And he’s just as impressive off the field. Lawson is poised and well-spoken in interviews, and a natural leader in the huddle. He never complained this year when his offensive line was shifting and changing due to early-season injuries.

“Everyone listens to him, everyone respects him,” Herzog said. “They know how hard he works. He’s a real student of the game.”

And he’s tough, a trait that elevates Lawson above many quarterbacks. A lot of his rushing yardage came on broken plays, and a lot of his completions came after he extended the play by escaping a sack in the backfield. And really, how many all-league quarterbacks are defensive starters?

Lawson is. When the Gauchos played a run-oriented team, Herzog would go with three defensive backs and give his QB a rest.

But if they played a team that spread the field and threw the ball efficiently, the coach would put Lawson at safety. And if the opponent had one dominant receiver, Lawson would draw the assignment to cover him.

Casa Grande finished the season with a long string of pass-happy foes, meaning Lawson worked overtime for most of the second half of the schedule.

“I think you have to play your best players,” Herzog said, explaining his willingness to put Lawson on defense. “And he never once asked for a breather. I’d ask him sometimes, and he’d say, ‘Coach, whatever you need me to do.’

“I talked to (former Petaluma coach) Steve Ellison before the season and got his advice. He said the same thing: If he’s one of your best, he should be out there.”

Herzog was gifted with back-to-back stud quarterbacks as Lawson replaced Nick Sherry, who is now at UNLV. He knows that finding someone to step into Lawson’s shoes will be a tall order indeed.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

ALL-EMPIRE TEAM

Offensive Player of the Year

JaJuan Lawson, quarterback, Casa Grande, Senior

Defensive Player of the Year

John Porchivina, linebacker, Casa Grande, Senior

Coach of the Year

Trent Herzog, Casa Grande

FIRST TEAM

OFFENSE

QB: Keaton Dunsford, Cardinal Newman, Senior

RB: Logan Francavilla, Montgomery, Senior

RB: Ja’Narrick James, Analy, Junior

WR: Matt Basich, Windsor, Senior

WR: Kevin Lucey, Cardinal Newman, Senior

WR: Kerr Johnson Jr., Analy, Junior

OL: Jacob Hicks, Analy, Senior

OL: Brendan Jackson, Casa Grande, Junior

OL: Nick McCloskey, Petaluma, Senior

OL: Matthew Robinson, Sonoma Valley, Senior

OL: Julian Tomayo, Windsor, Senior

PK: Matt Abramo, Casa Grande, Junior

DEFENSE

DL: Steven DeSouza, Rancho Cotate, Senior

DL: Daniel Greisen, Casa Grande, Senior

DL: Jacob Sloma, Healdsburg, Junior

LB: Tyler Gabriel, Piner, Senior

LB: Miles Gardea, Casa Grande, Senior

LB: Cody Hughson, Casa Grande, Senior

LB: Henry Stelzner, Montgomery, Senior

DB: Dan Deely, Sonoma Valley, Senior

DB: Etienne Ezeff, Montgomery, Senior

DB: Brad Freitas, Casa Grande, Senior

DB: Kieran Newell, Analy, Senior

SECOND TEAM

OFFENSE

QB: Colin McAlvain, Windsor, Senior

RB: Gabe Medina, Petaluma, Senior

RB: Alex Netherda, Maria Carrillo, Junior

WR: Niko Formosa, Piner, Senior

WR: Chris Taylor-Yamanoha, Rancho Cotate, Sophomore

OL: Jake Groesbeck, Maria Carrillo, Senior

OL: Micah Hamlow-Sawyer, Analy, Senior

OL: Justin Perry, Montgomery, Senior

OL: Alex Runge, Casa Grande, Senior

OL: Sean Wolfe, Cardinal Newman, Senior

K: Trent Klein, Cardinal Newman, Senior

TE: Jared Brazis, Maria Carrillo, Junior

DEFENSE

DL: Will Andrews, Cardinal Newman, Senior

DL: George Pennington, Montgomery, Senior

DL: Andrew Wollmer, Analy, Senior

LB: T.J. Acheson, Analy, Junior

LB: Tanoa Peleti, Rancho Cotate, Senior

LB: Donavan Reece, Petaluma, Senior

LB: Jared Walker, Healdsburg, Senior

DB: Anthony Bautista, Montgomery, Senior

DB: Dylan Kolman, Cardinal Newman, Senior

DB: Andre Kupelian, Casa Grande, Senior

DB: Chris Pedroni, Healdsburg, Junior

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