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By Zach Cavanagh

What a long and strange trip this 2020-21 high school athletics season was.

It was simultaneously the longest and shortest campaign that anyone involved in high school sports will most likely ever experience. The COVID-19 pandemic obviously affected some more important areas of life much more than others, but in the world of sports, the pandemic erected barrier after barrier that student-athletes, coaches, administrators and parents had to leap over time and time again.

However, through it all, those barriers were cleared or taken down. From the distanced conditioning camps of the summer, fall and winter to last week’s CIF-SS track and field finals, seasons were contested, and from late July 2020 to early June 2021, the end was finally reached.

Normally in this space, there is a focus on singularly triumphant or spectacular performances by an individual student to be named the San Clemente Times Athlete of the Year. There were plenty of incredible seasons in the face of adversity, to be sure, but to single out any one athlete over another in this season seemed unfair.

So, for all of their accomplishments, fighting through every barrier and piece of adversity, getting back on the field and competing to the best of their abilities, every San Clemente Triton athlete is the San Clemente Times Athlete of the Year.

Photo: Shawn Raymundo

After the spring sports season was shut down in March of 2020 due to coronavirus concerns, no one knew just how long of a road back to the field it would be and what would be sacrificed to get there.

It wasn’t until July when some movement began, as the Capistrano Unified School District scheduled athletic camps that were then canceled days before their start after reaffirmed state guidance kept youth sports teams off the field. On July 20, the high school season met its first hurdle, as CIF reorganized its sports calendar and pushed fall sports back to December starts.

Positive steps were taken in August, when CUSD athletic programs began conditioning camps, even if they initially started out with small and socially distanced groups with no contact or equipment. As the months went on, the camps went through different phases to slowly work back in shared equipment and limited contact.

In December, the proposed sports start date was kicked down the road to January and which sports could start when was tied to the state’s four-tiered, color-coded coronavirus monitoring system.

Once January hit and much of the state remained under a stay-at-home order, the tensions were high as #LetThemPlay rallies were held across California, pushing for the return of high school and youth sports. By the end of the month, some would get their wish.

Caption: Zach Cavanagh

Cross country was the first sport to return, and on Feb. 6, San Clemente’s cross country teams returned to competition, with the girls team winning a home dual meet against Mission Viejo. It was the first competition for Triton athletes in 11 months.

The positive news was swiftly met with tragic news as the pandemic hit home. San Clemente football running backs coach Joe Wood died at 71 on Feb. 12 after a month-long battle with COVID-19. Just one week later, football was among the sports given a green light to return.

On Feb. 26, all outdoor sports were allowed to return, provided counties met certain coronavirus metrics, and some sports, including football and water polo, would initially require testing.

Photo: Alan Gibby/Zone57

One week later, a legal victory in San Diego opened the door for indoor sports to return across the state, again if teams met certain testing criteria.

Once sports returned, it was a fast and furious run as teams competed for field space and open dates on the calendar.

Football and the boys and girls water polo teams played league-only sprints in their shortened seasons in March. Senior James Bohls put up a career-best season in only five games as San Clemente football stormed to an undefeated league title. Senior Alex Higginson powered the Triton girls water polo team to another league title.

Photo: Zach Cavanagh

The San Clemente girls volleyball team was nearly the only team not to get a season in, but they were creative. The Tritons opened with a few matches outdoors at the beach to play within pandemic restrictions, and eventually, San Clemente got a couple matches in the gym to make their season.

In the spring (or “Season 2”) sports, wrestling also got creative with some outdoor matches. It paid off, as the boys grappled their way to a second consecutive CIF-SS dual meet championship, and the girls wrestling team made its mark by advancing to the sport’s inaugural CIF-SS quarterfinals.

San Clemente boys volleyball made up for its shortened 2020 season with an absolutely dominant run through the South Coast League. The Tritons dropped just one set in eight league matches for an undefeated league title and a Division 1 playoff berth.

Photo: San Clemente High School Athletics

Both San Clemente lacrosse teams qualified for the inaugural CIF-SS playoffs in Division 1. After obliterating the South Coast League, the girls team played two overtime thrillers in advancing to the CIF-SS quarterfinals.

On the tennis court, the San Clemente boys tennis team didn’t skip a beat despite a skipped 2020 season. The Tritons extended their league winning streak to 80 consecutive matches and won their 10th straight South Coast League title.

On the basketball court, the San Clemente boys basketball team won its first league title since 2017, and the Tritons hosted and won a first-round playoff game in Division 2A.

Photo: Zach Cavanagh

San Clemente rounded out its strong athletics year on the track, where junior sprinter Caroline Hawkes made a name for herself. Hawkes was named the Orange County Championships sprinter of the meet for wins in the 200 meters and 400 meters. Hawkes won both those events at the Sea View League Finals to help the Tritons win the league title, and she also ran both races at the CIF-SS Finals.

Now, somehow, the offseason is here, and a regular high school sports schedule looms on the horizon.

Just more than 50 days until it all starts again, at a hopefully more normal pace.

Zach Cavanagh

Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a 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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