El Camino coach John Roberts teaches math at the school, but he knows about the Wildcats' history.
OCEANSIDE One offensive play into his first game as El Camino High’s head football coach, John Roberts busted out his inner Pete Carroll.
As Nick Donalson shimmied right, shifted left, then ran untouched up the middle for a 74-yard touchdown against Point Loma, Roberts jogged down the sideline, right index finger waving to the heavens.
“That’s the way to start, boys!” screamed Roberts.
Offensive linemen running off the field at the Wildcats’ Herb Meyer Stadium were greeted with chest bumps. Roberts lifted Donalson off the carpet in a bear hug. He slapped enough high-fives to blister his palms.
“It feels good to see your head coach that excited,” offered wide receiver Jason Broomfield.
Alas, high school football is a 48-minute game. The Wildcats sprinted to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, but eventually Point Loma confounded the hosts with its fly offense, spoiling Roberts’ debut with a 38-28 victory.
“It’s not how you start,” Roberts said. “It’s how you finish. We’ve got to get better as a team.”
At El Camino, the arrival of the 2014 season rings with significance. While crosstown rival Oceanside is the yardstick by which all local football teams are measured, the Wildcats, once dominant, have declined.
In the last decade, El Camino enjoyed just two winning seasons.
Enter the 34-year-old Roberts. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, Roberts looks like he could slip into the Wildcats’ brown-and-gold garb and rush for more than 2,000 yards, which he did in 1996 at University of San Diego High.
“Not only a fantastic running back, but a tough kid and a great young man,” recalled Sean Doyle, Roberts’ coach at Uni.
Roberts played collegiately at Utah State, where he was a 220-pound blocking back. He coached the last five seasons as St. Augustine’s offensive coordinator.
In a city proud of its Camp Pendleton Marine Corps presence, Roberts cuts a drill instructor’s image, his chiseled face all sharp lines and hard edges. He walks around campus at a brisk pace, players often calling him not Coach Roberts, but Mr. Roberts.
The man teaches math, but he knows his history, fully aware that Meyer created a one-time dynasty. Meyer, who lives about a par five from campus, is third in California history in wins by a football coach (338). He directed El Camino to eight section titles from 1976 to 2003.
El Camino players know the program’s history, too. A day before the season opener, center Zack Lusack was asked, “Do you know when the Wildcats last won a section …”
“1999,” blurted Lusack before the question was finished.
Lineman Kevin Kish added, “We want to put El Camino back on the map.”
Roberts’ blueprint to turn the program around is not high on subtlety. On offense, he envisions a we’re-going-to-run-the-ball-down-your-throat attack.
Goal primarily accomplished Friday night. El Camino rushed for 209 yards and three TDs. But the ground game was squeezed in the second half when the Wildcats offered little of a passing threat.
On defense, Roberts seeks to attack.
That defense needs some work. Point Loma hammered the Wildcats on the outside, rushing for 374 yards and five touchdowns.
It’s often said that more is learned in defeat than victory, and that was the approach Lusack offered.
Walking along the sideline as the clock ticked down, the senior center said to his teammates, “Let’s go guys. We’re going to learn from this and get better from this.”