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By Steve Breazeale
Following the San Clemente High School football team’s Tuesday practice this week, the team huddled at midfield in the cold night air. Mark McElroy, a former Triton head coach who is currently the head coach at Saddleback College, was at the center of the huddle, giving a passionate speech about what Friday’s CIF-SS Division 2 Championship game will mean to those playing in it.
The Tritons will travel to Murrieta Valley on Dec. 2 to play for the title. It’s the third consecutive season in which the Tritons have advanced to the divisional final, and the team has a chance to win the school’s first-ever football championship.
San Clemente has come heartbreakingly close in recent years, only to be outdone in 2014 and 2015 by late drives and, in the case of last season, a final-second Hail Mary pass in the championship game.
McElroy, who was one of several guest speakers invited to practice this week, told the Tritons to forget all of that. What matters most, he said, is the 2016 version of the Tritons.
San Clemente (10-3) is not focusing on the past and is instead focused on the opportunity that is right in front of them.
“Over the last three years, to be one of the two top teams left in the division, I think that’s a compliment to our program and the way we do things,” coach Jaime Ortiz said. “But at the end of the day everybody remembers who wins, and that’s the most important thing on Friday night, that they go out there and play this great game one more time together.”
The Tritons’ path to the championship game has not been easy.
After running past Chino Hills in the first round, San Clemente traveled to Menifee to play top-seeded Heritage in the quarterfinals.
In the semifinals, San Clemente hosted Valencia in what Ortiz said was one of the best games in school history. Twice San Clemente faced 14-point deficits, but scored 20 unanswered second-half points to claim a 41-35 victory.
The last few weeks have revealed a San Clemente team that doesn’t flinch when facing top-ranked opponents, has poise down the stretch, and isn’t afraid of a long bus drive. They will face many of those same obstacles Friday when they travel to play Murrieta Valley (11-2), the No. 2-ranked team in the division.
Murrieta Valley’s high-powered offense, which is averaging just over 51 points per game, starts with sophomore quarterback Hank Bachmeier, who has thrown for 3,597 yards and 43 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Senior running back Olita Palmer has gained 2,259 yards rushing and has racked up 28 touchdowns.
“For us defensively, we’ll have our hands full,” Ortiz said of Murrieta Valley. “We’re going to have to be on point in all three facets of the game.”
San Clemente will counter with a defense that has allowed just over 22 points per game in the playoffs, and a potent offense that features quarterback Jack Sears and running back/receiver Brandon Reaves, who have combined for 17 total touchdowns in the postseason.
One thing the Tritons won’t have to worry about this week is an entirely new travel environment. The team will be eating the same pregame meal they had when they traveled to play Heritage two weeks ago, and will stop at Ronald Reagan Sports Park in Temecula for warm ups, just like they did before the quarterfinals.
One more bus ride, one more game. It’s a fitting sequence for the Tritons, whose motto all season long has been to go 1-0 each week. If they accomplish that goal one more time on Friday night, they will cement their names in school history.