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San Clemente High School football boasts its most experience in years, as the Tritons eye a return to league and playoff glory

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By Zach Cavanagh

This is as experienced of a team that the San Clemente High School football program has seen in a long time.

Maybe not necessarily by the number of returning starters—of which there are 15—or even in the total number of seniors. But the number of collective varsity games played by this senior class might be the most the Tritons have ever had.

San Clemente football teams usually have an advantage that their peers don’t in terms of sheer familiarity of the roster, as many players in the program have played together as Tritons since their days in youth football. “One Town, One Team,” and all. However, not many have had this sort of tenure at the varsity level.

At least six Triton seniors, including five on the defensive side of the ball, earned reps as sophomores during the COVID-delayed 2020-21 season. Players such as running back and safety Blake Allen and safety Brad Gerken have been impact players in each of their two previous varsity seasons, and it’s that level and breadth of experience that position this San Clemente team as a formidable one.

“It brings a brotherhood and a chemistry between us,” Gerken said. “We kind of know what everyone is thinking at the same time. I won’t have to tell my other players what they’re doing, because we’ve been together. We’ve got everything down.”

It’s not empty experience, either. These seniors have been quite successful in their San Clemente careers. They were 9-1 as freshmen, and then on varsity, the Tritons went 5-0 for a South Coast League championship in their shortened and delayed sophomore season. San Clemente went 7-3 last season and earned a No. 4 seed in the CIF-SS Division 3 playoffs.

However, it’s the last game that has lingered for the senior class. 

Last November, the Tritons were up by 21 points at halftime at home in the first round of the Division 3 playoffs. However, despite eliminating Roosevelt of Eastvale’s passing attack through three quarters, the Mustangs came alive in the air in the fourth quarter to take advantage of turnovers and score 21 points, including the go-ahead score with less than 30 seconds remaining. What looked like a cruise to the second round ended up in disaster and a dramatic first-round elimination.

“It stuck with us,” senior receiver Reid Kotiranta said. “I don’t think a practice goes by where we’re not reminded of it and how hungry we are. Coach (Jaime Ortiz) talked about it at the end of practice, where we have to be hungry instead of happy. We all want to see improvement from last season.”

While San Clemente head coach Jaime Ortiz hasn’t harped on the specific loss himself, the resulting attitude expressed by Kotiranta and the players is a sentiment shared by Ortiz. While these seniors have seen success, there is still more to achieve, such as reclaiming the South Coast League title or playing for San Clemente’s second CIF-SS title.

“The evil of great is good,” Ortiz said. “How do we take that next step and play for a league championship, have an opportunity to make our mark in the playoffs? For our kids, last year we were good, not great. This year, our kids want to be great. You see it in these seniors that have a lot of experience. They want to take that next step.”

Additionally, and while this applies to everybody, the high school football world is completely back on normal ground. While there was a full 10-game season last year, it was a season that took place just four months after the previous delayed season, and the regular season still dealt with cancellations and late schedule changes. This season, teams were able to hold spring football and run through the regular rhythm of summer workouts and passing league events.

Now, high school football players across Southern California are fully prepped and ready to go for another run under the Friday Night Lights.

Juniors Broderick Redden (left) and Dylan Mills (right) have battled it out for the starting quarterback mantle at San Clemente. Photo: Keaton Larson

Offense Features Returning Skill, New Quarterbacks

San Clemente’s offense features returners at every position, except at its most marquee slot.

Last season, the Tritons had only one senior among the outside offensive skill positions.

Allen is a dynamic two-way player and was the leading rusher and offensive MVP for San Clemente last season with 779 yards and seven touchdowns on 162 carries. Senior Thomas Hartanov was Tritons’ leading receiver with 385 yards and four touchdowns on 40 receptions and second-leading rusher. Hartanov will line up in the slot as a receiver and still get carries in the backfield.

Senior Reid Kotiranta was the third-leading receiver for San Clemente with 378 yards on 37 catches and a touchdown. He’ll be a leading threat on the outside with juniors Brock Della Vedova, Drew Shanley and Jake Poole. Senior Mason Old returns to line up at tight end.

The offensive line is shored up with senior left tackle Colin Brophy, junior right tackle Connor Bachhuber and junior guard Ben Baker. It’s a strong front committed to opening up more lanes for Allen to burst through.

This deep into the offensive section with no mention of who will actually be throwing to all this skill and protected by the beef up front. Strange, isn’t it?

The Tritons have two options to fill the most high-profile position at Sam Darnold High in a pair of junior quarterbacks: Broderick Redden and Dylan Mills.

Redden is a family name familiar to San Clemente football fans, as his brother, Bentley Redden, was a tight end for the Tritons, graduated in 2021 and signed with BYU. Broderick has had success as a young Triton signal-caller with a 4-1 freshman record and a 7-3 record and league championship for the junior varsity last year.

Mills may also be familiar to anyone who follows Orange County high school football, as he is a transfer from JSerra. In split action over six games last season at JSerra, Mills completed 44 of 90 passes for 430 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Mills also ran for two scores.

Ortiz said the competition was even through the summer and passing league. Redden may open the season as the starter by default, as Mills’ transfer paperwork gets processed with a possible sit-out period. Until an official decision is made, the two continue to push each other and make it a tough choice when both are available.

“Broderick and Dylan have pushed each other all spring and summer, but they also have a good relationship,” Ortiz said. “They’re competing, but they also know they’re doing what’s best for the team. For our kids, both Broderick and Dylan have had opportunities for throwing sessions and things like that. Both guys have stepped up into a leadership role.”

Whoever assumes the mantle, they’ll have plenty of weapons to try and move the San Clemente offense that sometimes had trouble staying on the field last season to one with dynamic potential.

Most of San Clemente’s defensive experience shows up in the secondary. Photo: Keaton Larson

Defense Brings Experienced Hammer in Secondary

While the offense always grabs the headlines, it’s the defense that has always been the heart of San Clemente’s success. That’s no different this year, with an experienced secondary leading the way.

“We’ve always been a defense-first football team. That’s where it starts and ends. Defense wins championships,” said Ortiz, who runs the defense.

The Tritons return five of their top six tacklers from last season, including defensive MVP Cole Robertson. Robertson, a senior linebacker, led the Tritons with 105 total tackles and was second on the team with three sacks. Gerken was second on the team in tackles at safety with 65.

Senior linebacker Nolan Reid was third in tackles with 58, including a team-high five tackles for loss. Other defensive players returning include linebacker Kyle Yamano and Insley and Shanley at cornerback. Shanley was the only player with multiple interceptions last season with four picks. Gerken and Poole were the other players with interceptions last season.

Triton defenses are usually labeled as ball hawks, and that should be no different this season with that secondary patrolling. If San Clemente is to beat Mission Viejo, it will rely on that secondary to shut down the passing attack, as it has each of the past two times the Diablos have traveled to Thalassa Stadium.

San Clemente High School Football. Photo: Keaton Larson

League Schedule Shakeup

It’s that big showdown with Mission Viejo that anyone circles on the San Clemente schedule, but this year, with the rotation of the South Coast and Sea View League lineups, that game isn’t the ultimate matchup.

For the first time since the Tritons returned to the South Coast League in 2016 after a brief Sea View League stint, Mission Viejo v. San Clemente will not be the final game of the season. It always worked out great, because with those two teams as the powerhouses of the league, the season always built up to a league title clash to close the regular season.

This season, the two teams will meet in the first game of the league schedule on Oct. 14.

San Clemente finally broke Mission Viejo’s ironclad grip on the South Coast League with a drama-filled comeback in 2018 at Thalassa Stadium, which was the Tritons’ first win over the Diablos since 1999. Mission Viejo responded with a 32-point win at home in 2019, but the Tritons struck back with another thrilling win on a late field goal in San Clemente in April 2021. Mission Viejo again exacted its revenge with a 45-0 win at home last season.

Now, San Clemente gets the opportunity to defend its home turf again, but the Diablos might be more loaded up than either of the two previous trips south. 

“They’ve got enough kids coming back that they’re going to be a very good contender,” Ortiz said. “In order to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man. This year, with our seniors and their seniors, it’ll be a good game, and we’ll see where things settle out.”

Despite the earlier date, the stakes will likely be the same, with the winner probably moving on to take the South Coast League title. 

Capistrano Valley returns to the South Coast League, and despite a talented quarterback coming back, the Cougars will probably slot into last place. The team that could still upset the apple cart for San Clemente or Mission Viejo is Tesoro. The Titans will be much improved, have solidified their own quarterback spot and have plenty of history with both the Tritons and Diablos.

For the playoffs, the CIF-SS enters the second season of its in-season, power-ranking-determined playoff format. Playoff divisions will again be decided after the season by the algorithm of calpreps.com, which is updated each week with the latest results. Last season, Mission Viejo slotted into Division 1, and San Clemente slipped down to Division 3. 

When games ended on that final Friday of last season, many, including Ortiz, figured San Clemente would hold on to one of the final Division 2 spots. However, when the rankings were updated overnight into Saturday morning, the Tritons ended up as a high seed in Division 3 instead. It’s a bit of calculus on which Ortiz no longer focuses.

“When I was younger, when Eric Patton was the head coach here, I used to try and make a chart and find out who the bracket was going to be and who we’re playing,” Ortiz said. “Every time, I learn to focus on the important things and let it all play out like it’s supposed to.”

San Clemente can’t figure any of that out in August.

There’s plenty for the Tritons to accomplish in the next three months, and it kicks off on Aug. 19 at Oceanside High School.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at zcavanagh@picketfencemedia.com.

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