By Steve Breazeale
Donté Harrington, like many of his teammates, has been thinking about this week for a full calendar year.
After last season’s loss in the CIF-SS Southwest Division Championship game, the senior offensive lineman and four-year starter for the San Clemente High School football team began counting down the days until the Tritons get to take the field and play for another shot at a title.
On Friday, Dec. 4, the wait will be over.
Second-seeded San Clemente is back in the finals and will travel to play No. 1 La Habra in the CIF-SS Southwest Division Championships at Cerritos College at 7 p.m..
The Tritons (11-2) lost in the finals to Trabuco Hills in 2014 and many of those same players will get to take the field Friday night. Last year’s loss has served as motivation for many among the Triton ranks.
“We just really know how important it is and, more importantly, how it feels to be on the losing side,” Harrington said. “We just don’t want to ever be on that side again. Everyone is really excited. We’re just trying to get the school behind us and get us going and get everyone at the game. It should be a lot of fun.”
If the Tritons hope to capture the school’s first CIF-SS Championship, they will have to go through a red-hot La Habra (12-1) team that knows a thing or two about collecting postseason trophies. The program has won six CIF-SS Championships since 2002, including a dominant four-year stretch from 2007-2010 that saw the Highlanders win four straight titles. La Habra has not been to the finals since the 2010 season.
The Highlanders, who will be the Tritons fourth straight Freeway League opponent this postseason, possess a potent offense and a stingy defense.
La Habra has recorded four shutouts on the season and is limiting opponents to an average of just over 10 points per game.
The La Habra offense, led by senior quarterback Eric Barriere, is averaging just over 42 points per game.
“They’re tough defensively … They have a tough front seven and a very athletic secondary,” San Clemente head coach Jaime Ortiz said of La Habra. “They have a good offensive line, athletic receivers … so they’re pretty well-rounded. It’ll be a good test. There is a reason why they’re 12-1.”
The marquee matchup of the night will be the battle between Barriere and his counterpart, San Clemente junior quarterback Jack Sears. Both have the ability to throw downfield with accuracy as well as run for big gains.
In the Highlanders’ semifinal win over Villa Park on Nov. 27, Barriere threw for 180 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 126 yards and two scores on the ground. Sears tossed three touchdowns and recorded a receiving touchdown on a trick play in the Tritons semifinal triumph over Buena Park.
“(Barriere) and Sears, I think, are two of the best quarterbacks in the county and they get to go at it Friday night on the same field. It should be pretty fun,” Ortiz said.
The Tritons will enter the contest riding a hot streak of their own. Since the start of league play on Oct. 9, San Clemente has outscored its opponents by a combined 386-120 margin over a seven game stretch, including three playoff contests.
The Triton running attack, led by senior Vlad Dzhabiyev, Brandon Reaves and Austin Whitsett, has been running wild behind the effort up front by the Tritons big offensive line, which features Harrington, Tucker Scott, Turner Tonkovich, Noah Valovich and Zachary Cochrun. Sears has linked up with receiver Liam Eldridge and tight end Cole Fotheringham for six combined touchdowns in the playoffs.
The defense has one shutout in the playoffs under its belt and has recorded eight turnovers through three postseason games.
“We felt like we started clicking (during league play). We eventually just started getting better and better each week,” Harrington said. “We knew where we wanted to be and we knew what we had to do to get there and that, honestly, started the day after we lost, almost 365 days ago. It’s been a long process, but this is just something that we’ve been pushing for since day one.”
The game will be broadcast on tape-delay on Fox Sports West starting at 10 p.m.