Brandon Hernández 5 p.m., April 24
Titans start fast, hold off Highlanders in final minute
LA MESA – In a battle for early season supremacy, very little separated #3 Eastlake and #2 Helix on Friday night. The Titans got off to a fast start and hung on to upend the Highlanders 21-14.
“This is a great win. We were looking forward to this all offseason and this is what we were working hard for,” said Eastlake senior running back/safety Jude Isbell.
With 1:16 to play and Helix (0-1) facing a fourth-and-10 from the Eastlake 17-yard line, Isbell sealed the victory by breaking up a Highlanders pass in the end zone. On the play Helix quarterback Brandon Lewis found receiver Kendal Keys over the middle, but before Keys could haul in the ball Isbell jarred it loose with a massive hit.
“I made one freshman year, but I don’t think anything quite that big,” Isbell said. “I don’t know what it looked like, but his helmet fell off and it felt pretty good.”
Helix’s sideline claimed that Keys had possession long enough for the play to be ruled a touchdown, but after the officials conferred the play remained an incomplete pass and the ball went to Eastlake (1-0). The Titans ran out the final 1:09 to preserve the win.
“It was a bang-bang call,” said Helix head coach Troy Starr. “It was a judgment call, so what are you going to do? I told him I disagreed, but what is that good for?”
In the first half, Eastlake moved the ball effectively with its Wing-T attack and kept Helix’s defense off balance. The Titans scored first, taking a 7-0 with 1:12 left in the first quarter on an Adrian Tabula 5-yard touchdown run.
“We did a lot of conditioning to get up to this point and we had been doing great in practice,” Isbell said.
Eastlake went ahead 14-0 early in the second quarter on an Isbell 67-yard touchdown run up the middle. Once the speedy senior made it past the Helix linebackers, he sprinted untouched into the end zone.
“No one was catching me on that one,” Isbell said. “It was wide open up the middle and I just planted and ran.”
After a sluggish start, Helix’s offense found the end zone in the second quarter on a Lewis 15-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jimmy Pruitt. The Highlanders’ defense kept it a 14-7 game at halftime with a goal line stand in the final minute of the second quarter.
“I know who my ballers are and I know the guys that need some work,” Starr said.
Helix began the second half with the ball, but stalled at midfield and was forced to punt. The Highlanders had trouble putting together drives throughout the game.
“We did not play really well offensively,” Starr said. “We were really inconsistent.”
On the ensuing possession, Eastlake went ahead 21-7 on a methodical 80-yard scoring drive that featured two fourth down conversions – including a fake punt. Titans running back Aaron Baltazar capped the seven-minute drive with a four-yard scoring run with 2:56 left in the third quarter.
Down 21-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Helix began to come back by moving the ball through the air. With 7:43 left, Lewis threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Keys over the middle to make it 21-14.
“They started driving the ball down on us a little more and passing the ball well, but in the end we just came through in the clutch,” Isbell said.
Helix had the ball twice in the final four minutes of the game, but was unable to get the tying score. With 3:15 left, Highlanders receiver Cameron Lee lost a fumble in Eastlake territory and after an Eastlake punt, Helix moved the ball down to the Titans’ 17-yard line before four consecutive incomplete passes ended the comeback attempt.
“We knew Helix was overlooking us, they thought they could beat us and this is a big win for us,” Isbell said.
With the victory over second-ranked Helix, Eastlake stakes an early claim as the best team in San Diego. Top ranked Oceanside fell to Anaheim Servite on Thursday night.
“I think we deserve to be No. 1 – we’ve proven it tonight,” Isbell said. “We stopped them on the final drive, and we were pretty solid on offense and defense.”
As for Helix, Starr said the Highlanders’ defense was brutal with the exception of a small stretch in the second half. Last season, Helix didn’t taste defeat for the entire regular season.
“We’ve got some good players and it’s going to be a long season,” Starr said.
Pictured: Eastlake running back Aaron Baltazar weaves through the Helix defense