Westlake coach Jim Benkert didn’t know quite what to do with Connor Cook when he arrived on campus.
Over the summer, the senior wide receiver and defensive back transferred from the posh, private confines of Oaks Christian to the public powerhouse of Westlake. He was small and skinny, listed at 5 feet 10 and 165 pounds. For the first game of the season against Del Oro in Loomis in Northern California, Benkert had Cook on the field for one play.
“He has gone from there to really being a two-way guy,” Benkert said. “On the field, on offense and defense, and being a special guy on special teams, too.”
Cook, the son of Toi Cook, who played in the NFL for 11 seasons mostly with the New Orleans Saints, leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns, despite playing in only six of Westlake’s nine games on offense. He has 318 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game.
“He has worked his way into a position where he is a big part of the game plan on both sides of the ball,” Benkert said. “What he brings is some outstanding speed. His speed really sets himself apart. He’s also a really good athlete. He’s not overly big, but he really can stretch a defense.”
His best game of the season came against Royal. He scored five touchdowns, three on touchdown catches and two on kick-off returns. He leads the team with nine touchdowns. But his contributions to the team extend far beyond the offense and special teams.
“On defense, in the cover corner, he has a lot of confidence in his abilities that allow him to play with reckless abandon,” Benkert said. “He’s really helped us a great deal.”
When Westlake plays St. Bonaventure in the Marmonte League season finale on Thursday night at Ventura High School, Benkert and his coaching staff will fully utilize the skills of Cook.
“When he came out there, we kind of looked at each other and said, he doesn’t seem to be so special,” Benkert said. “Looks are deceiving to some extent. As he got the opportunity to practice and learn the plays and feel more comfortable with his teammates and such, all of a sudden he started to blossom.”
Cook started with the defensive unit, playing defensive back, the same position that his dad made a name for himself at Stanford and in the NFL. Toi Cook had a career-high six interceptions for the Saints in 1992. But Benkert said Toi Cook takes a hands-off approach to his son’s high school career.
“It actually is a really good thing,” Benkert said. “Some of them that come from Oaks Christian may feel like they have a little bit more of a say on what goes on. He’s been in the back seat completely. He’s been very humble. We never even talk football. I’ve never even talked football with him.”
Oaks Christian has been able to pluck talented football players away from Westlake in the past. Benkert knows how fortunate it was to turn the tables.
“It was nice for us to get one,” he said.
There is a lot at stake in the game between Westlake (9-0), ranked No. 2 in the ESPN Los Angeles high school football poll, and No. 3 St. Bonaventure (8-1). The Marmonte League championship, the No. 1 seeding in the CIF-Southern Section Northern Division playoffs and perhaps a berth in a CIF state bowl game are all on the line.
If Westlake wins, the Warriors take the Marmonte League title outright with an undefeated 9-0 record. If St. Bonaventure wins, there will be potentially a three-way tie for first place with Oaks Chrisitan in the Marmonte League standings. Oaks Christian plays Newbury Park on Thursday night.
St. Bonaventure will be Westlake’s toughest test to date. While Benkert said his team doesn’t need to play a perfect game to beat St. Bonaventure, Westlake needs to probably play its best game of the season.
“They’re a well-coached football team,” Benkert said. “They've got a lot of great players. We’re going to have to play well. I don’t think they or us can think about going in and having a flawless game. We’re going to have to limit our penalties, take care of the football, do all the things you have to do in a big game in order to be successful. But I think they would tell you the same thing. We’re pretty good too.”
St. Bonaventure running back Shaun Wick leads the team in rushing with 870 yards and 11 touchdowns. Zack Green has 598 yards rushing, scored 10 touchdowns on the ground and has four touchdown catches.
St. Bonaventure has shut out three of its Marmonte League opponents and is coming off a 60-7 win over Calabasas. The Seraphs have scored 50 points or more in four games. Benkert says he is going to rely on his defensive line to slow down the St. Bonaventure offensive attack.
“St. Bonaventure is not a normal team either,” Benkert said. “They have the ability to pound people, even the good ones that we have. The best part of that defensive front is that they have the ability to get up the field and they can run sideline to sideline, each one of them.”