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Video and text by Steve Breazeale

As the San Clemente football team kept piling up wins this season, the possibility of a playoff berth became more real. With that came the fun practice of trying to anticipate who the Tritons first-round opponent in the CIF-SS Division 1 playoffs would be.

With six Trinity League teams in the mix, would they draw a local private school power? Maybe a matchup with a familiar foe, like Murrieta Valley?

On Nov. 5 the answer was revealed. San Clemente (9-1) will travel to play Rancho Cucamonga (9-1) in the first round on Friday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.

Rancho Cucamonga is the second place team out of the Baseline League. San Clemente, which lost to Mission Viejo 49-21 on Nov. 3, is also a second-place team.

The matchup between the Cougars and the Tritons is the only first-round draw in Division 1 that features two public school programs.

“You don’t see two 9-1 teams matched up in the first round very often … that shows how tough that Division 1 bracket is,” San Clemente coach Jaime Ortiz said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Rancho Cucamonga was awarded the home game on Friday because they were the Division’s No. 6 overall seed. The Tritons were seeded seventh.

Ortiz said the draw against the Cougars went in line with the feeling he had in his gut. As the season wore on, San Clemente began to make a crawl up the CIF-SS Division 1 polls, jumping from No. 9 on Oct. 16 and finishing in the seventh spot on Oct. 30. That meant the Tritons were guaranteed a draw with a similarly seeded opponent.

Ortiz said Rancho Cucamonga, which is led by 2,200-yard passer Nick Acosta, plays a style similar to Murrieta Valley or Edison, teams the Tritons defeated earlier this year.

The Cougars have three receivers with at least 25 receptions on the season, led by junior Jeremiah Criddell (32 catches, 674 yards, eight touchdowns).

“They have a talented receiving corps, are very sound on offense with a big line. But it all starts with their quarterback,” Ortiz said.

San Clemente hung tough early but faded late on the road against Mission Viejo in the final regular season game of the season. After offensive lineman Thomas Wade pounced on a fumbled ball in the end zone, the Tritons found themselves cutting into the Diablos’ lead 21-14 after falling into a 21-0 hole to begin the contest. Big plays by the Diablos and turnovers contributed to the eventual Mission Viejo rout.

“It showed we can play and go toe-to-toe, but the kids learned a valuable lesson. We have to play for all four quarters and we have to play clean (football),” Ortiz said.

The winner of Friday’s game will play the winner of St. John Bosco-Bishop Amat in the quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 17.

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