The two prep football squads bearing the name of this city kicked off their 2023 seasons last week.
This past Thursday night, the Cougars of Escondido motored 44 miles south to take on a Morse High team that had trounced them by a 42-7 count the year before.
Meanwhile, 24 hours later, Escondido Charter welcomed Clairemont High to Wilson Stadium, the expansive football facility that the Cougs call home. Twelve months prior, the White Tigers had ambushed the Chieftains en route to a convincing 37-6 victory.
So let’s delve into how those two return matchups ultimately turned out. The questions that loomed were would it be more of the same or would there be a completely different narrative or two?
The White Tigers entered their season opener having to replace a whopping 19 starters, 10 from the offense. Coach Jon Goodman and his staff knew that getting so many inexperienced starters sufficiently prepared and up to speed would require plenty of “diligent and intense” teaching.
Nonetheless, in the week leading up to the Clairemont game, the players took to their film study and really showed out in the weight room. Goodman noticed a definite uptick in their overall development.
But as might be expected with so many new faces, the first half versus the Chieftains had its share of mistakes and lack of execution. And Charter’s 14-0 halftime edge could have been even more substantial had the White Tigers taken advantage of other scoring opportunities.
However, Goodman liked the way his team pushed through its errors and kept moving forward. By the second half, Charter was starting to click while playing with a palpable confidence and a real sense of fun. The White Tigers tacked on 23 more points after intermission to eventually finish with a 37-0 win.
On both sides of the ball, EC benefited from plenty of notable performances.
Senior running back Nick Patterson had a huge night on the ground while gaining 184 yards and scoring thrice, including a 41-yard jaunt that opened the scoring.
Upfront, the physical Mark Fonseca helped pave the way for Patterson with notable drive blocking that resulted in some impressive pancakes—or if you prefer, wipeouts.
Though he missed on some throws, senior quarterback Travis Grayson definitely rose to the occasion in his first meaningful outing behind center. A smart and gritty athlete, Grayson tossed for 170 yards and a pair of lengthy scores.
On the end of those 37 and 41-yard scoring connections was two-way standout Charlie Lewis. A team captain, the lead-by-example Lewis did his pass receiving damage while operating from the slot.
Meanwhile, the defense played quite well in posting a shutout, no easy feat in an opener.
In the trenches, senior tackle Nick Taylor controlled matters inside and recorded a sack. Elsewhere, junior linebackers Joe Scates, Sam Stehly and Ethan Stark were more than stout, making plays all over the field while pacing the team in tackles. Senior Josiah Hay was another real contributor with a display that included an interception.
So for the second straight season, Charter has gotten off to a promising start by using Clairemont as a springboard.
But what lies ahead for the White Tigers will be quite the gauntlet as they move into the Coastal League and confront their most daunting schedule since Goodman came aboard in 2019.
In other words, the new starters will have to grow up in a hurry. But coming off two nine-win seasons and with a culture that has produced great results, Esco Charter seems well equipped to handle the considerable challenge that awaits in 2023.
As for the Cougars, they were chomping at the bit to show what they could do under their dynamic new coach Stephen Dixon. Since his arrival in January, the vibe surrounding the football program has dramatically changed from doubt and discouragement to hope, anticipation and enthusiasm.
But alas, things got off to a shaky start versus the Tigers when a pick 6 put the Cougars behind early and by the end of the first quarter, Esco was looking up at a sizeable 22-6 deficit. In years past, such a margin would have broken the Cougs but not so under Dixon’s stewardship.
Reflecting a deep desire to compete, the Cougars fought back valiantly and showcased an impressive resiliency. Over the final three quarters, Esco controlled the play and was clearly the better team.
Unfortunately, Esco couldn’t capitalize on some pivotal excursions into the red zone. And when Tiger linebacker L.T. Turner came up with a clutch interception in the fourth quarter, time soon ran out on the visitors in a 22-18 loss that Dixon felt should have gone the other way.
But in the aftermath of such a tough setback with victory so close at hand, Dixon told his charges that he admired their effort and that next time, they’ll be better equipped to finish things off when presented with a chance to do so. He also reminded them that it’s a long season with even more consequential games yet to come.
Despite the loss, the EH defenders were terrific, especially over the last three quarters. “The defense played lights out,” praised Dixon.
Junior linebacker Danny Valadez was a stud, turning in a dominating effort from his inside linebacker post. Another Cougar who shined at the second level was the always impactful David Flores.
On the back end, cornerback Kevin Kelly delivered some key tackles in addition to splendid work at returning kickoffs.
Freshman tackle Davian Gainey was a force in the pits in addition to forcing and recovering a fumble. Junior Jeremy Oakley was another lineman making his presence felt.
On offense, sophomore receiver Josh Gonzales proved to be an absolute showstopper while gathering in 13 receptions that translated into 197 yards and a score. Whether it was on a hitch, quick screen or deep ball, Gonzales was absolute money as he tormented the Tiger secondary with his receiving prowess.
Frosh quarterback Caden Thompson also revealed some real mettle. Not allowing his early pick to have any lasting effect, this beyond-his-years signal-caller refused to get rattled, gave great effort and displayed a highly productive arm that hit on 20 of 26 throws that went for 244 yards.
Moving forward, Dixon is confident his club learned some valuable lessons from its first game under his direction and will definitely rebound in its upcoming tilt versus intracity foe Orange Glen. “The way we battled back at Morse and fought speaks volumes about this team,” said Dixon. “We are a group that really believes in itself.”
That belief should carry the Cougs a long way in their quest towards what Dixon expects to be a successful and rewarding season.