The Otay Ranch Mustangs and Eastlake Titans boys lacrosse teams appeared headed for a Metro Conference co-championship last season. That is, until the Mustangs were forced to forfeit their final regular season game because of the use of an ineligible player. The one forfeit loss handed the Titans the league title - and an automatic berth in the San Diego Section playoffs.
Despite the unsettling events of last year, the teams still consider one another to be their toughest adversary this season in league play. Thus, Otay Ranch's 9-7 victory April 8 at EHS has to be considered the first shot fired in the teams' latest war for supremacy in the South Bay.
With the win, the Mustangs (3-0 in league play, 4-5 overall) took over sole possession of first place in the conference standings. The Titans (3-1, 6-3) fell to second place, with a return match-up scheduled May 3 at ORHS.
Did the visitors consider themselves underdogs to the defending Metro champions or vice versa?
"We considered ourselves equals," first-year varsity Mustang head coach Eric Ruden said. "We looked at our schedule for league and came to the conclusion that Eastlake would likely be our best competition. We knew we had to come and play our game."
The Mustangs' "game" indeed proved formidable. Eastlake prides itself on its fast-break offense. Well, Otay Ranch obviously showed it can play in fast tempo mode as well.
The Mustangs made a statement with the opening two goals of the game and never trailed thereafter. The Titans narrowed the score to one-goal deficits on three occasions - 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 - but could never quite maintain the momentum to produce a level playing field and a new start for both teams from there.
Otay Ranch led 7-4 at halftime and 9-4 with 3:56 left in the third quarter. Eastlake finally found its groove in the dying minutes of the game, scoring three goals in a span of 1:07. But the offensive punch came much too late to matter. The Titans' seventh goal came with just 34 seconds left in the game.
"You can never afford to lose your focus," Ruden said. "I won't say I wasn't nervous at the end."
Ruden takes over a program after three years of coaching the South Bay Outlaws, the youth development arm of the Mustangs and several other local high school programs. Ruden also didn't start out with the cupboard bare.
Talented sophomore Franz Hahn paced Otay Ranch with four goals while Lalo Prieto scored twice.
Colton Wood and John Nicholls, who each scored once in the win over Eastlake, led the Mustangs with four goals each in a 13-3 victory at Hilltop three days earlier. Chris Songer had 15 saves against the Titans and 11 saves against Hilltop.
Eastlake goalie Eric Santana was busy against Otay Ranch, making 17 stops. David Santana and Jacob Dempsey each scored two goals for the Titans.
The Mustangs' goal for the rest of the season, Ruden said, is to stay on top of the Metro standings and continue to fine-tune their game plan.
"Our first goal was to win league," the Mustang coach said. "We know we're not going to make a run at a CIF title. But we want to make the best-ever showing by a South Bay team in the playoffs. I feel if we play our game that it will make other teams take notice of the South Bay."
Bonita Vista (2-1, 6-3) defeated visiting Chula Vista, 15-2, on Monday behind two goals each by Michael Hall, C.J. Hanes and Devin Brockulhurst, while standout Felipe Cardenas contributed one goal and six assists and goalie Alex Posis made nine saves.
Chula Vista, which received goals from Manny Gutierrez and Moses Garcia, defeated Mar Vista, 14-4, on April 5 as Solomon Gil (seven goals, one assist) and Andrew Klistoff (five goals, three assists) each amassed eight points and Kevin Mederos dished out five assists.
The Spartans (1-2, 2-6) have played as best as might be expected with a skeleton crew. Chula Vista was tied at halftime twice and also held one lead before being overtaken late in games.
Eastlake rebounded with a 21-2 win at Montgomery (1-2, 1-6) on Monday while Otay Ranch was idle until Thursday's scheduled match at Chula Vista.
Metro Conference standings
(through April 12)
Otay Ranch 3-0 (4-5 overall)
Eastlake 3-1 (5-3 overall)
Bonita Vista 2-1 (6-3 overall)
Hilltop 2-2 (4-5 overall)
Chula Vista (1-2, 2-6 overall)
Montgomery 1-2 (1-6 overall)
Mar Vista 0-4 (1-5 overall)