MISSION VIEJO — Earlier this month, two of the highest-profile high school football leagues in the country — the Trinity and Mission Leagues — held their inaugural media days. Both leagues are stacked with athletically elite parochial prep schools, such as Mater Dei, St. John Bosco, and Bishop Amat.
So, the top public football schools in Orange County decided, why not have one too?
On Wednesday head coaches and players from the best football teams around Orange County gathered at Mission Viejo High School to put on the first-ever Orange County Football Public School Media Day. The teams in attendance were San Clemente, Yorba Linda, Los Alamitos, Mission Viejo, La Habra, Tesoro, Corona del Mar, and San Juan Hills.
Here are eight takeaways from the event — one for each team — in order of their appearances:
San Clemente: “One town, one team”
The San Clemente Titans take immense pride in representing the only high school in the city of San Clemente. Their motto — “one town, one team” –represents how much the support from their town means to them. San Clemente is by no means a small town, as there are roughly 65,000 residents. But it still pales in comparison to other sizable cities in Orange County such as Irvine or Santa Ana that are home to their competitors.
As coach Jaime Ortiz pointed out, when San Clemente won Division 2 and then won state in 2016, the outpouring of support from the community was incredible. Over 3,000 people were waiting for them in the parking lot when the bus returned to campus. Streets were packed, businesses were closed; the fire department and police were there to headline the celebration. And more than 10,000 citizens came out for the ensuing parade.
It means a lot to the program that the entire community rallies around them every Friday night during the season in a manner they compare to Friday Night Lights. And because there’s only one team in town, all the players grow up playing together knowing they’ll eventually be Titans. Their bond is stronger than most of their foes, and they play scrappier as a result.
Coach Ortiz put it best: when you go to play at San Clemente, you aren’t just taking on the Titans – “you’re going to play an entire community as well.”
One town, one team.
Yorba Linda has never won league as a member of the Crestview League. This year, they’re set on changing that, and they have 24 seniors on hand to make it happen.
One thing that often correlates with having lots of seniors is having lots of size. That’s certainly going to be true for the Mustangs this season. Coach Jeff Bailey expects his squad to excel around the line of scrimmage on both sides. They’re returning four of five starters on the offensive line, with an average weight of over 270 lbs. Their defensive line is largely seniors as well, and their entire linebacking corps is comprised of seniors.
The area of uncertainty for Yorba Linda is at the skill positions. That’s where they’re going to need a few guys of lesser experience to step up. But overall, this team is stacked with seasoned seniors who are hungry to bring home their first ever Crestview League title. And once they do that, they intend to go on a deep Division 5 playoff run. It all starts with their experience, and their size. Hopes are as high as ever for the Mustangs, and it boils down to an exceptional crop of seniors.
Los Alamitos: Fast and furious offense
Coach Ray Fenton made no bones about it in Los Alamitos’ press conference–their fast-paced offense should be hard to stop. And that’s going to be their identity this season.
Now, that’s not to say the Griffins don’t have plenty of talent on defense. They do, and they should be great on that side of the ball as well. For instance, junior OLB Tyler DeLeon already has eight college offers. But they plan on their offense being overwhelming and overpowering. It’ll be pass-heavy as usual, aggressively pursuing downfield threats, and routinely going no-huddle.
Coach Fenton revealed that pro-style quarterback Cade McConnell tore his ACL two days before game one last season. And then proceeded to play all twelve games and throw for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns. This year, McConnell is back and healthy, and should be given more balance to work with. RB Oscar Brown, who has two D1 offers, has reportedly improved quite a bit since last season and will help Los Alamitos be less dependent on the passing game. But their calling card this year will unmistakably be a fast and furious downfield attack.
Mission Viejo: Chips on their shoulders
Last season, in Chad Johnson’s first season as their head coach, Mission Viejo lost in league for the first time since 2008. And it was for the league title to league rival, San Clemente.
Per Johnson, in the opening minutes of the game, a key player sustained a scary injury that resulted in immediate hospitalization. That threw Johnson and the Diablos off, and they were out of sorts for the rest of the night. San Clemente ultimately stunned them with a 21-20 victory, and snatched away their league crown. Mission Viejo hadn’t lost to them since 1999.
“The way that team celebrated is definitely still on our minds,” said Johnson at media day. The air with which he said it left no room for doubt. That night, the Diablos clearly saw or heard something that in their opinion was out of bounds. What actually went down, of course, we may never know. But this year, Mission Viejo is coming in with an underdog, chip-on-their-shoulder for the first time in many years.
The Diablos believe that this year, they don’t have quite as much talent as last year’s squad. They did lose a very talented senior class. Now that they aren’t the reigning champs anymore, Mission Viejo believes this year’s team is going to be grittier, harder working, and fresh with a new, feisty underdog attitude that will get them back on top.
That mentality is going to apply to anybody and everybody in their way. But it was very clear that San Clemente better be ready to feel their wrath when they play this year.
La Habra: Star seniors with experience setting the tone
La Habra is in an enviable position. They field a few of the best players in the entire county, who happen to be well-seasoned seniors.
Penn commit Ryan Zanelli threw for 3,180 yards and an unfathomable 42 touchdowns last season as a junior. The Highlanders also have future Ohio State Buckeye Clark Phillips III, arguably a top five cornerback in the country. By the way, Phillips also happened to rack up over 1,200 receiving yards last season, and 19 receiving touchdowns. Then there’s Mason West, a future Washington Husky and top 50 recruit in the country at tight end. The list goes on further.
And what’s great is, they all have exceptional experience having played meaningful playoff games as a unit. They’ve also been blown out by national powerhouses together as well. And everyone at La Habra believes that their ability not only as players but leaders will set this team apart. In turn, the stars expressed at media day that they’re very confident in the progress of some of the young guys who’ll be asked to step up.
Dominant, experienced seniors who know how to lead a group, plus talented and hungry underclassmen? Sounds like a winning combination. La Habra certainly thinks so.
Tesoro: It’s Sean Lindgren’s team
From coach Matt Poston to star wide receiver Justin Schafer, everyone from Tesoro delivered one clear message on media day. This will be Sean Lindgren’s first season as starting quarterback, but they’re ready to make this his team. Even Lindgren himself said it, going on the faith in him his program is outwardly expressing.
Last season as a junior, Lindgren lost the starting quarterback battle, which was understandably pretty crushing. He still got a good amount of snaps throughout the season, but he was clearly the backup quarterback. Tesoro has a strong identity as a powerful offensive squad that loves to pass the ball downfield. Now that he has the keys to the offense, Lindgren is expected to be just the man for the job.
Per Poston and Schafer, pro-style Lindgren’s confidence and assertiveness making reads has skyrocketed over the offseason. Being the quarterback at Tesoro carries even more weight than it does on most football teams, given their style. Now Lindgren finally has his turn, and it sounds like he’s ready to shine.
Corona del Mar: Title or bust
The Sea Kings tend to set pretty high standards for themselves. This year, Corona del Mar has arguably their most stacked team ever. They’ll be returning a whopping ten starters on offense, and six on defense. So the standards are as high as ever–the goal is to win a division title, and ideally a state title. Anything less than an appearance in the division championship game would be more or less a failure.
Coach Dan O’Shea believes in his system and his players’ talent. His belief is that every game, the Sea Kings are going up against themselves more than the other team.
“If we take care of ourbusiness, we’ll always be successful,” he said at media day.
Corona del Mar went 11-2 last season. Their first loss came on opening night to an elite JSerra squad, and the other was in the D4 finals against Grace Brethren. In between, they were unbeaten. If that’s any indication of what they’re capable of, the extremely high expectations make plenty of sense.
On the topic of his team’s culture, coach Robert Frith delivered one of the most interesting statements of the day.
“We live in a pretty well-to-do area,” he said, alluding to the general level of wealth in the San Juan Capistrano area. “But we want to have a blue collar culture.”
Naturally, the Trinity League, Mission League, and elite public schools of Orange County all are located in very high-income areas. But coach Frith was the only coach at any of the media days to directly incorporate that fact into his remarks. What he said is unmistakably true – there’s no reason for any team out there to play and train with anything less than maximum intensity, grit, and physicality. He believes that pushing through adversity to build character is one of the paramount virtues of high school football.
The Stallions as a whole value keeping one’s head down and working hard.
“We don’t really talk a lot of smack. We like to keep our heads down off the field, and just work,” said star linebacker Jonah Johnson. When asked who his favorite athlete is, Johnson brought up Minnesota Vikings’ receiver Adam Thielen. Thielen has become a popular player on a national level for going undrafted and having to work his way up, earning his chance through the Vikings’ practice squad, no less.
All signs indicate that San Juan Hills football embodies the right mentality to make the most out of every player who’s ready to wear their hard hat on a daily basis.