Fri, Dec 07 2012 01:19 PM Posted By: Phillip Brents
The Eastlake Titans braved the steady rain at Escondido High School last Friday as well as the top-seeded Mission Hills Grizzlies to capture the program’s second San Diego Section Division I football championship in four years with a masterful 21-14 victory.
The score was deja vu for many of the Titan seniors who were on the 2009 CIF championship team as freshmen when Eastlake topped Vista by that same 21-14 score.
“We didn’t win league, we didn’t go undefeated but we won the one that mattered most, so that makes up for everything,” a jubilant EHS coach John McFadden said.
Titan senior Aaron Baltazar was the team’s battering ram, collecting 128 rushing yards and three touchdowns despite playing with a broken toe.
The Grizzlies prided themselves on having the fastest defense in the county but the reigning Avocado East League champions couldn’t stop the player at the top of their hit list.
Eastlake built a 21-7 lead in the game, capitalizing on an early Mission Hills turnover and using two long drives sustained by a determined rushing attack to tame the Grizzlies.
“Aaron broke his toe last Friday and didn’t practice all week but he came out and played like a man,” McFadden said. “I wanted to take him out at one point in the game but he wanted to stay in.
“I can’t say enough about his dedication and effort — and that goes for the whole team as well. It was a great effort — from the first to the last man.”
“It wasn’t just me out there carrying the team,” Baltazar underscored. “If the our offensive line didn’t block for me, I wouldn’t have been able to get those yards. The defense and special teams held it down. It was very much a team victory.”
The rainy and wet conditions obviously played a factor in the outcome of the game. Mission Hills was beset by poor field position throughout the opening half. Maintaining control of the ball, especially on punt returns, was a key concern.
A turnover set up the Titans’ first touchdown when Elijah Campbell sacked quarterback Connor Wynn and EHS teammate Keifer Graham made a fumble recovery at the Mission Hills 27-yard line.
The Eastlake running game set the tone by quickly closing the distance to the end zone. Baltazar carried the final two yards and freshman Aeden Johnson kicked the extra point to give Eastlake a 7-0 lead with 7:21 left in the first quarter.
The weather conditions made the passing game less effective, though a clutch fourth-down reception by Vince Panaligan proved instrumental in setting up the Titans’ second touchdown, scored on a one-yard run by Baltazar with 8:17 left in the first half.
Wynn set up in the shotgun position for most of the game to give him a wider view of the Eastlake defense as well as more of a comfort zone against the fierce Titan pass rush.
The Grizzlies lived — and died — by the pass in this game.
With Eastlake (10-3) all but shutting down the Grizzly running game (minus-three net yards for the game) that forced Wynn to scramble repeatedly in search of receivers.
A 38-yard reception by Devin Holiday set up Mission Hills’ lone touchdown of the first half. Anthony Bautista finished off the drive with a three-yard run with 2:02 left in the half.
In fact, it appeared Eastlake might get out of the opening half with a two touchdown lead until defensive standout Blake Wilson was called for a roughing the passer penalty on an incompletion deep in the Grizzlies’ own territory. The penalty gave Mission Hills (10-3) renewed life — and a significant improvement in field position to launch its scoring drive.
The late Grizzly TD proved crucial as Mission Hills would receive the ball first to start the second half.
But it was the Titans who dictated the direction the game would take.
Eastlake’s defense shut down the potent Grizzly offense once more and the Titans answered with a long field march punctuated by another Baltazar touchdown.
A 38-yard catch and carry by Panaligan caught the entire Mission Hills defense by surprise to set up the score.
A Mission Hills defender finally brought him down at the three-yard line. The Grizzly defense made a stand but the Titans forced the ball ahead one yard on three successive carries, with Baltazar again bowling his way over the goal line.
Johnson’s PAT conversion put Eastlake up 21-7 with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
At this point, many among the Titan Nation began to believe.
Eastlake’s defense received its stiffest test midway through the fourth quarter when Mission Hills’ offense finally began to click as the constant rain began to lighten.
The Grizzlies moved the ball inside the Titan 20-yard line before sputtering. That set up a key fourth-down play on which Wynn was sacked. It was the sixth take-down of the game by the EHS defense.
The ball reverted to Eastlake but plenty of time remained on the clock — enough time for Mission Hills to force a punt and drive 78 yards for a second touchdown.
The drive ended with a controversial 17-yard pass completion from Wynn to Brad Sochowski with 3:20 left in the game.
After the Grizzlies pulled to within one touchdown, McFadden admitted he was surprised that Mission Hills didn’t elect to go for an onside kick in an attempt to keep possession.
“I guess they felt they could stop us and get the ball back,” the EHS coach said.
That forced the Metro-Mesa League runners-up to rely on their rushing game more than ever. The Titans would have to retain possession if they wanted to seal the victory.
And McFadden’s troops answered the call magnificently.
Baltazar rushed for three clutch first downs to enable Eastlake to run out the clock ... and allow both him and his teammates to start celebrating.
“I just wanted to fall forward — that’s all,” Baltazar said. “I just wanted to keep both hands on the ball and get enough yards for us to keep it going.”
Baltazar dove forward on third-down-and-one with 2:13 to play to give the Titans four more downs with the Grizzlies out of precious time-outs.
With the clock running, Baltazar got one last chance to carry the ball with 30 seconds to play. He swung deep into the backfield, moved to his right and, as Mission Hills defenders approached, he reversed his path and ventured back into the middle of the field where he slid into the turf next to Stevens, his protector, to allow the final seconds to tick down.
“It was just like 2009,” McFadden explained. “The kids knew they had to make some big plays to finish it out, only this time it was on offense, getting those first downs.”
Baltazar and Wilson were both members of the Titans’ 2009 CIF championship team as freshmen. Both were visibly emotional on the field — partially elated by the thrill of victory and stunned by its magnitude.
“Just to get back here meant so much … and we won,” said Wilson, who had two sacks in the game along with Campbell. “I’m really at a loss for words.”
There were more than raindrops wetting the faces of Titan players on this memorable night.
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