Ken Leighton 9 a.m., March 24
No matter how far Eastlake goes this season, they plan on getting there quickly. The Titans are a Division I championship contender in 2011, largely because they are loaded with speed and athleticism.
“Our whole team is fast,” said Eastlake senior running back/safety Jude Isbell. “Not everybody does track, but we have a lot of fast guys.”
An all-CIF performer in 2010, Isbell rushed for 1344 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior and is one of the Titans’ top returning players. At this spring’s Nike Combine in Long Beach the speedy back ran a 4.48 40-yard dash – the fifth fastest time in an event that featured nearly 1000 high school football prospects.
“He has just incredible speed,” said Eastlake head coach John McFadden.
Eastlake’s two-way burners include seniors Darran Hall (receiver/defensive back) and Travis Gardner (receiver/safety), along with juniors Tavarus Green (running back/defensive back) and Aaron Baltazar (running back/safety). Hall and Green double as two of the best track athletes in the South Bay.
“We’re extremely athletic,” McFadden said. “This is the fastest team I have coached by far. We have guys that can really run.”
This year’s Titans are even quick in the trenches. Senior nose guard Nathan Mitchell is built more like a safety at 5’11”, 195 lbs., but Mitchell’s speed allows him to make plays that bigger defensive lineman can’t.
“A lot of teams go with size and really big guys up front, but we move speed up on defense,” McFadden said. “Size isn’t as important as being fast.”
In addition to speed, Eastlake has experience on its side in 2011. Thirteen starters return, including senior quarterback Josh Palet, senior linemen Gabe Casillas and Arturo Hurtado, and junior linebacker Blake Wilson, who broke a school record last season with 16 sacks.
“We don’t really have any weaknesses,” Baltazar said. “Our offense and defense are both good.”
In 2010, Eastlake’s Division I title defense came to an abrupt end in the section semifinals. Riding a then section best 22-game winning streak into the semis, the Titans were shocked 20-0 at home by Mira Mesa.
“It is something the kids have really thought about,” McFadden said. “They were really upset with the way things ended last year.”
Isbell said the season-ending loss has served as motivation during the summer. Eastlake has reached the semifinals each of the past five seasons, but has only made one trip Qualcomm Stadium during that span.
“We had an undefeated season up until then, we hadn’t lost in two years and just being shut out at home was pretty tough,” Isbell said. “We weren’t really expecting that.”
Eastlake begins the season Sept. 2 at Helix in what could be one of the best games of the entire season. Along with Oceanside, both the Titans and Highlanders are in the early discussion for best team in San Diego.
“I think Helix is one of the top two or three teams in the state right now coming back,” McFadden said. “They have the best defense I’ve seen in this county for a while and offensively they are very well coached and they have some very good athletes.”
The Titans’ preseason schedule includes four-time defending Division III champion Cathedral Catholic (Sept. 30) and Division II semifinalist Steele Canyon (Sept. 23). The five-time defending Metro Mesa League champions begin league play against Chula Vista on Oct. 14.
“I’m excited because it’s more to prove,” Isbell said. “We’ve got a tough schedule and once we win, people are going to be looking up to us and we’re going to be No. 1 again.”
Isbell said Eastlake has aspirations of a section and state title this season. For the past half-decade, the Titans have been steadily building into a football power in San Diego.
“It feels good being part of one of the top schools in the county,” Isbell said. “We’re expected to do great and people are looking for us. We’re going to put on a show this year and we’re going to go hard.”