Westlake High was supposed to struggle this season. Its offense, which broke 22 school records last season, was to be led by a first-year quarterback. And a defense that couldn't have plugged a runny nose last year again was suspect.
None of that was true Friday night.
The Warriors plugged in John Snyder, who did not play last season, and watched him complete 13 of 27 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He led an offense that gained 295 yards in a 23-16 win over Buena in a nonleague game at Thousand Oaks High.
Westlake's defense, spearheaded by Tim Kirksey with two interceptions, came up with as many big hits as big plays. It forced three turnovers by Buena, a team expected to compete for the Channel League title.
Westlake scored 15 consecutive points in the second half to erase a 16-8 deficit. Snyder, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound senior, seemed to fill a void that Todd Preston supposedly had left when he graduated last June.
"We feel we can throw the ball," Westlake Coach Jim Benkert said. "Snyder came out a little jittery, but he has the skills."
Snyder's first touchdown pass, a 49-yard toss to Erik Holcomb, pulled Westlake to within 16-14. Holcomb then hit Wayne Reynolds for the conversion that tied the score, 16-16, with 7 minutes 26 seconds left in the third quarter.
Kirksey, a transfer from Simi Valley, intercepted Matt Ertman's pass to give Westlake the ball at Buena's 29-yard line. Three plays later, Snyder hit Holcomb for a seven-yard score and Snyder kicked the point to give Westlake a 23-16 lead with 3:08 left in the third quarter.
Holcomb, considered one of California's top 100 players by Cal-Hi Sports magazine, was a scoring threat all night. He caught four passes for 162 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's our big-play player," Benkert said. "We just have to figure out how to get him the football."
Buena had trouble coming up with an offensive weapon to complement sophomore tailback George Keiaho, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season. Keiaho gained 133 yards in 25 carries, but the Bulldogs came up with just 73 more yards.
"It was stupidity on our part," Buena Coach Rick Scott said. "We just had a whole bunch of kids that didn't use their brain."
Westlake's 23-16 lead was never threatened because of an inspired Warrior defense. Gordon Johansen recovered a fumble, Vince Bruno batted down a key third-down pass, and Kirksey's second interception ended Buena's final drive.
"We felt improving our defense was something we had to do," Benkert said.