When Adrian Ayala and Chris Lombardo transferred to Newbury Park High from St. Bonaventure in February, the writing seemed to be on the wall in big, broad letters.
Two of Ventura County's best football players had outgrown the little Division XI football program and decided they were ready for a high-profile season at Division IV Newbury Park.
But things are not always as they appear.
For starters, seniors Ayala, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman, and Lombardo, a 6-2, 195-pound quarterback, are acquaintances rather than close friends.
Secondly, their reasons for leaving St. Bonaventure were different. Lastly, Ayala decided to return to St. Bonaventure, stunning Newbury Park coaches and players, including Lombardo, who is staying at his new school.
"Each kid handled it differently," said Jon Mack, football coach at St. Bonaventure.
Ayala said he left St. Bonaventure because he wanted to try public school. Lombardo wanted a "change of scenery," according to Mack. Lombardo declined to comment on his reasons for leaving, but many believe they were football-related.
Ayala, who said he had grown tired of the Catholic school of 650 students where everyone knows everyone, struggled with the decision for weeks, often asking Mack for advice.
Lombardo and his parents discussed little about the transfer with St. Bonaventure coaches, Mack said.
"They had made up their mind, they were going," said Mack, who believes the Lombardos were dissatisfied with the Seraph coaching staff.
"Kids have left before and they will leave again. We couldn't worry about who was going to be here and who wasn't."
Ayala and Lombardo, Camarillo residents, enrolled at Newbury Park in February, attending the same Algebra II class taught by football Coach George Hurley. The newcomers made friends quickly and seemed happy in their new surroundings.
Spring football came and went without a hitch.
Then came the summer. . . and Ayala was gone.
"It's like he got up in the middle of the night and ran away . . . home," Hurley said. "The only disappointing thing is that he didn't come to see me."
Lombardo said Ayala's abrupt departure came as a surprise.
"I thought Adrian was pretty happy here and then all of the sudden he left," Lombardo said. "It was kind of a shock to all of us."
Ayala said former teammates Adam Gray-Hayward and Matt Bouvet convinced him to return to St. Bonaventure.
"They just kept asking me, 'Do you really think that's the place you want to be?' " Ayala said. "And I didn't really have any good reasons to stay."
But he did have reasons to leave.
"Football just wasn't doing it for me [at Newbury Park]," Ayala said. "No offense [to Coach Hurley], but Coach Mack is the man. You just don't grow that bond with any other coach. Nobody cares about you like he does."
No one is happier about Ayala's return to St. Bonaventure than Mack, who said he was "crushed" when Ayala left.
"I really thought he and I were on the same page and that he was the leader who was going to take us to the [Southern Section] championship," Mack said. "[Losing Ayala] was really difficult for me to deal with."
Now it's Hurley who is missing one of the best offensive linemen in the county.
"We've got a couple of 150-pound kids to fill his spot," Hurley cracked.
But Hurley still has a prize in Lombardo, who he calls "probably the best quarterback in the county.
"He's got a very strong arm," Hurley said. "From the waist up, he's very good and his feet are getting better every day."
For Lombardo, who completed 64% of his passes for 2,427 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, the move has been all that he expected.
"I am very happy where I am," said Lombardo, who has taken every snap this summer because Cameron Merrill injured his shoulder early in June.
"It's been great for me."
And great for the Panthers, according to Hurley.
"Lombardo has a real strong work ethic and he's a real coachable kid," Hurley said. "We're very pleased to have him around."
Despite the comings and goings, all players and coaches involved said there are no hard feelings about who ended up where and why.
At this point, everyone is anxious for September.
"It's really exciting," Ayala said. "Our team unity has really come together. I've played with all these kids for four years. This is the year that we're going to win it all, so I was glad to be back."