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By Steve Breazeale
The names of every single player who has worn a San Clemente boys basketball jersey over the past 38 years were taped to the walls of the team’s locker room before they took the court against visiting Trabuco Hills on February 7. It was a reminder that the first-place Tritons, who had to win in order to claim the Sea View League title outright, were playing not just for themselves, but for countless other Tritons who did not get to raise a banner in their historic gym since 1975.
Following a convincing 63-44 victory over the Mustangs those names were taken down off the wall in a locker room celebration. This San Clemente team had finally done it. They are now playoff bound.
“It’s a big monkey off our back as a program and for us it’s just been this process where we’ve worked so hard all year long for this moment and these kids deserve it…I’m so proud of everything we’ve done as a team,” San Clemente head coach Marc Popovich said. “It’s the most satisfying moment of my career.”
Things could not have gone better for the Tritons (16-10, 7-1 league), who came into the game needing a win. A Trabuco Hills victory would have meant San Clemente, the Mustangs (13-12, 5-3) and Dana Hills (19-7, 6-2) would have been in a three-way tie for first place. The Tritons did not let that scenario come close to manifesting itself.
San Clemente opened the first quarter with an 8-0 run and never let the Mustangs, who had a poor shooting night, get within six points the entire game.
At halftime the Tritons held a 29-16 advantage, thanks in part to sophomore Sam Darnold’s eight first-half points, senior Anthony Pinelli’s six and senior Jimmy Bankson’s five.
The second half saw the Tritons guards get aggressive on offense as senior Brock Eissman continuously drove through the lane and attacked the rim en route to eight total points. The Tritons reached the free throw line 12 times in the second half, scoring 17 points from the charity stripe alone. Their lead grew to 24 points near the end of the third quarter.
“We thought we had some driving lanes especially on the base line with (Eissman) and he did a great job of getting to the rim in the second half, getting fouled and getting layups…We thought we took too many outside shots in the first half.” Popovich said.
A good number of attendees at the game were not even born the last time the Tritons won a boys basketball league title. Now the team heads into the CIF-SS playoffs as a No. 1 seed riding a three-game winning streak.
“I’ve been playing on this team for the last four years and this is such a great feeling,” Eissman said. “To think we are the only team in the last 38 years to win a league championship is mind blowing…those names (on the locker room walls) motivated us.”