By Zach Cavanagh

SAN CLEMENTE – Finally, it happened.

On the arm of a back-up quarterback who hadn’t attempted a varsity pass… on the strength of a defense that was maligned through a 1-4 start to the season… on a night and in a season that had thrown everything at them, the San Clemente football team finally did it.

Junior Drayton Joseph stepped in for an injured Brendan Costello in the second quarter to throw for 263 yards and two touchdowns, and the San Clemente defense forced three turnovers and stopped a potential go-ahead two-point conversion with three minutes remaining to push the Tritons over Mission Viejo, 21-20, for the first time since 1999 on Friday at San Clemente High School.

“It’s pretty crazy,” San Clemente senior defensive end Ryan Altman, who made the two-point conversion tackle, said. “It means everything to me. I’ve been working four years just to start on varsity, and all I wanted to do was win this game. This was my everything. I put everything on the line tonight.”

The Tritons (6-4, 4-0) captured Sea View League championships in 2014 and 2015 and CIF-SS and State titles in 2016, but the win clinched San Clemente’s first South Coast League title since that 1999 season. The game was also the first league loss for Mission Viejo (4-5, 2-1 with four forfeit losses) since 2008.

“I think winning CIF was pretty dang big, because it’s something we hadn’t done in  a lot of years,” San Clemente coach Jaime Ortiz said. “It’s pretty even. (Beating Mission Viejo is) pretty dang close. I think us winning CIF, I think the Mater Dei upset in 1996 and this game are all right there.”

“We told our kids whether you’re Sam Darnold or Travis Wilson or Kyle Murphy, they never beat Mission. These kids can now put this on their resume. That’s a good program over there that do great things, but we’re pretty damn good too.”

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This game, like the season for San Clemente, began with plenty of obstacles to overcome.

Mission Viejo got on the board first. After an interception on a reverse-pass play, the Diablos punched in a one-yard run six plays later for the opening score, 7-0.

Then on the first play of the second quarter, senior and Oklahoma State-committed quarterback Costello was knocked out of the game.

Costello ran to his right and while going out of bounds took a helmet-to-helmet hit to the head. Ortiz said after the game Costello sustained a concussion. Mission Viejo received a targeting penalty on the hit.

The penalty was the second of four 15-yard penalties assessed to Mission Viejo on the drive. The Diablos were ultimately penalized 14 times for 136 yards in the game.

The penalty set up a short field for the back-up quarterback Joseph, who had led the junior varsity Tritons to victory on Thursday.

“I was just thinking do not turnover the ball,” Joseph said. “Rule No. 1, don’t turn over the ball, get first downs and just rely on my team to take us to victory.”

Joseph continued the San Clemente drive, and on his fourth pass attempt, he found senior Jay Baggs on a three-yard touchdown pass to tie the game, 7-7.

“We beat them in the JV game, just tried to take that into today,” Joseph said. “It was completely different, just way different.”

On the ensuing Mission Viejo drive, the Tritons forced their second turnover of the game with an interception by junior Trenton Brail at the Diablos’ 32-yard line.

Joseph hit senior Jaydel Jenkins on a back-shoulder 24-yard pass that set up a one-yard touchdown run by senior RJ Donaldson to put San Clemente in front, 14-7.

Junior Preston Rex intercepted Mission Viejo on the next drive, but the Tritons didn’t convert and took the seven-point lead into halftime.

San Clemente stopped a long Mission Viejo drive to open the half, but the Diablos took the ball back on a tipped-pass interception. Eight plays later, the Diablos punched in a two-yard run to even the game again, 14-14.

But the Joseph and the Tritons went back to work quickly.

A 26-yard pass to Rex coupled with another 15-yard penalty on Mission Viejo set up a beautiful touchdown pass from Joseph to Jenkins. Jenkins grabbed the ball at its highest point for a 24-yard catch that put San Clemente back up, 21-14, with 24 seconds left in the third quarter.

San Clemente killed clock in the fourth quarter, but an interception gave Mission Viejo the ball at midfield with just under six minutes remaining.

The Diablos put together a six-play drive that culminated in a 23-yard touchdown pass. On the extra point attempt, San Clemente was called for encroachment, which put the ball at the one-yard line and made Mission Viejo think of going for two points and the lead.

After a timeout, the Diablos lined up in their heavy goal line formation, but Altman sliced through the Mission Viejo line to get the tackle and keep the Diablos behind, 21-20, with 3:05 remaining.

“In film, I was watching a lot of film this week, and on the goal line they either roll out to the right and throw or run to the left,” Altman said. “Tackle came out at me, I just cut through, got skinny and made the play.”

On the next drive, Joseph hit junior Cian Smith up the Mission Viejo sideline on a 59-yard play that set up victory formation and kneels for the Tritons.

Mission Viejo burned its final two timeouts and could have gotten the ball back with 20 seconds left. However, Donaldson burst through on a hand-off and got the first down to set up a final knee and the victory celebration.

Ortiz received the dump of the water bucket, and the Tritons flooded off the sidelines.

The Tritons now enter a regular season-ending bye week before the Division 1 playoffs.

The CIF-SS brackets will be released on Oct. 28, and with a league title in hand, San Clemente will host a first-round playoff game on Nov. 2.

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