Jay Paris: El Camino plays on with a passion and a purpose

El Camino High’s John Roberts chuckled.

“You’re running us too much, Coach,’’ said Wildcats defensive tackle D.J. Ingram, spinning his complaint with a grin.

Roberts laughed then and when he tells the story now as El Camino prepares for St. Augustine in Friday’s CIF San Diego Section Division I semifinal. But along with Roberts’ giggle he shared with Ingram earlier this month came concern.

“He had lost about 40 pounds, but you couldn’t tell from his attitude,’’ Roberts said. “But his body was changing.’’

Ingram, El Camino’s massive anchor along the defensive line, was shedding weight at an alarming rate. Much more than what Roberts’ conditioning drills might bring. What was once a 250-pound, football-passionate, exuberant teenager, the kind Roberts said, “you could win a championship with,” was barely moving the scale to 210.

“We knew something was wrong and it was definitely a challenge to watch a young man deteriorate physically like that,’’ Roberts said. “I’m just glad the doctors found the cause of it.’’

Ingram, 17, was diagnosed with leukemia last week and remains hospitalized. He’s undergoing chemotherapy and blood transfusion treatments.

“He is responding very well,’’ Roberts said. “And we make sure he is staying connected to the program.’’

While Ingram can’t receive visitors, social media doesn’t get stiff-armed at the door. His teammates are always a click away.

“And he’s able to watch our games on-line,’’ Roberts said.

Friday’s Wildcats contest against second-seeded Steele Canyon might have tested Igram’s heart.

“Especially that second half,’’ said Roberts, and we think he finally exhaled.

The final two quarters produced six lead changes as No. 7-seeded El Camino prevailed, 33-31, on Antonio Garcia’s 26-yard field goal in the closing seconds.

That advanced El Camino (7-5) to some once familiar haunts — the semifinals — but for the first time since 2000.

Back when iconic Wildcats coach Herb Meyer was drawing plays in the dirt, El Camino was pristine.

In 2000, EC was one year removed from its eighth CIF title. But it’s seldom been A-OK since.

Roberts took over this season, his first year as a head coach at any level. He’s flipped a program with an infectious, upbeat demeanor that quickly transformed Wildcats football.

“I had a vision for the program and I have high expectations for myself and the coaches,’’ said Roberts, an Escondido resident. “But the most important part was that the players bought into it; to know what success means and what it takes to actually get there.’’

Next is a formidable foe in St. Augustine (6-5), a defending CIF champion that had Roberts as its offensive coordinator last year.

“They have quite a few guys that can take it the distance,’’ Roberts said. “They have a very good offensive line, very discipline. And they have young talent on defense. They have some freshmen, but they are playing at a high level.’’

Same goes for El Camino and won’t this be fun?

“I believe our team can match up physically with anyone,’’ Roberts said. “We just have to make sure we know what we’re doing on every single play.’’

On Saturday, the message couldn’t be clearer: Come support Ingram with a blood drive at El Camino High, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. More information is available at ecwildcats.com.

“He is in our hearts,’’ Roberts said, “and on our minds.’’

Contact Jay Paris at jparis8@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at jparis_sports. He talks Chargers football on 1360 AM on Monday mornings at 8.

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