In that autumn of 1952, my first year as a sports writer for the former Daily Times-Advocate, there was only one high school in the area. The Escondido Union High School District encompassed Escondido, San Marcos, Poway (there was no Rancho Bernardo then) and Valley Center. (Vista and Fallbrook each had small high schools to accommodate their unincorporated communities.)
EUHS district buses provided transportation for those students from those outlying then rural areas of San Marcos, Poway and Valley Center, joining Escondido kids at that majestic-like manor “on the hill,” the three-story brick building at Fourth and Hickory — Escondido High School. It was only a few more years that town folks and students could experience that “high school on the hill,” as it was doomed to an unexpected demise. An inspection had considered it to be unsafe in the event of a major earthquake. So, the district board of trustees, to avoid the potential of future liability, made the controversial decision to have the venerable old structure razed in 1954.
That had paved the way for the move to North Broadway for housing in multi-structure, one-story buildings and enough land for a full athletic complex and a “farm” for FFA students.
The last group of seniors to graduate from the Fourth and Hickory site was the class of 1954, graduating in June of that year. The class of 1955 seniors actually started their year in September of 1954 at the “high school on the hill,” but began the transition to North Broadway in November and December and became the first class to graduate from the new high school in June 1955. Demolition was completed in 1955.
That North Broadway high school location stood alone in the area until 1960, when San Marcos and Poway split of from the EUHS district, forming their own separate unified districts of kindergarten through 12th grade. In 1961, the EUHS district added its second high school to a burgeoning area — Orange Glen. Then came San Pasqual High School in 1972. It was in the years following that that Valley Center split off from the district to create a unified school district, establishing Valley Center High School.
In that autumn of 64 years ago when Escondido was a sleepy, quiet city of fewer than 10,000 residents; when Escondido High School’s Cougars was the “only game in town” and I was a brand-new and rookie sports writer on the scene, Howard White was the varsity football coach, Jim Ahler was the basketball coach and Bill Duncan was the baseball coach and athletic director (having retired the previous year as the long-time football coach.)
The football field then was at the northwest corner of Fig and Valley, the recent site of county welfare offices.
Chick Embrey, who was to become the legendary football coach at Escondido High (his alma mater), leading the Cougars to their “glory days” in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was the P.E. teacher at Central Elementary School.
Howard White was in his first and only year at Escondido High, moving elsewhere after the 1952- 53 year. He was succeeded by Walt West, then Ed Roy, then Embrey, who by then had been an assistant under Roy.
In that 1952 year, the Cougars finished with a respectable 6-3 record. They ran a single-wing offense (which was on its way out in the mid-’50s as an offense, giving way to the T-formation.) Don Portis (who was to become the basketball coach and athletic director at his alma mater) was the tailback in that single wing. The tailback in those days was a “triple threat” — run, pass, kick (punt). The primary receiver was end Rich Gehring.
Some other players whose names I recall were Bill Birdsell, Jim Estep, Don Broyles, Dick Shepherd and Jim Tarling.
Escondido High School, part of a far less-populated county then and one of the far fever high schools in the county was in the Metropolitan League which included Oceanside, San Dieguito, Coronado, Chula Vista and Sweetwater.
The one game I remember from that year was the crushing defeat of 49-0 that Oceanside High inflicted on the Cougars at the Oceanside field. Not because of the embarrassing loss, but because of an exciting running back named C.R. Roberts, who scored five touchdowns that night. Roberts went on to star at the University of Southern California and then a professional career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I am not one to use hyperbole in extolling the athletic feats of high school athletes, but C.R. Roberts was a rare exception. I have to believe that most people who saw him play would agree that he has to be among the all-time best high school footballers to come out of San Diego County.
(I mentioned earlier in this column that San Marcos High School began its existence in 1960 and Orange Glen High School in 1961. Dick Disney was that first-year football coach at San Marcos, then snitched to Orange Glen at its inception in 1961 to become the long- time football coach and athletic director. Dick Disney was to Orange Glen as Chick Embrey was to Escondido High. The football fields at their respective schools are named for them.)
The Cougar basketball team that school year of 1952-53, led by center Rich Gehring and guard Don Portis, won the Metro League championship under coach Jim Ahler.
Ron Kenney, a 60-year resident of Escondido, was a reporter and editor of the former Daily Times-Advocate from 1952 to 1979 and a copy editor on the editorial pages of the San Diego Union-Tribune from 1985 to 1997.