Jack Sears’ high school career nearly came to a sudden and disastrous finish.
After a 7-yard touchdown pass by the San Clemente (Calif.) quarterback put the Tritons up 32-21 with 6:22 remaining, the game looked wrapped up. But Huntington Beach (Calif.) Edison scored on their first play from scrimmage, hitting the jackpot with a wide receiver screen it took 80 yards for a touchdown.
The Chargers attempted a short pooch kickoff, but San Clemente recovered the kick and immediately struck with a trick play, using a halfback pass to perfection for the second time. The play got them deep in Edison territory and the Tritons were going to allow their USC-committed star quarterback to get them in the end zone.
Sears dropped back just beyond the 10-yard line and looked to his left. He stared down his receiver coming across the goal line and fired a throw, but Edison defensive back EJ Ginnis read his eyes and cut in front of the throw intercepting the pass and running it back 100 yards to flip the scoreboard.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound four-star prospect had done the unthinkable and the improbable. Sears had thrown only two interceptions the first 14 games of his senior year and now his second of the game had given Edison a 35-32 lead with 4:41 remaining.
His head coach, Jaime Ortiz, went to him and told him to keep his head up. San Clemente was going to need its senior captain one more time.
“I wanted to re-emphasize that sense of 'Hey, we're going need you one more time bro. This game ain’t over yet.' That's kind of been our relationship,” Ortiz said. “It's easy to put your head down and just feel sorry for yourself, but we don't have the time for that. We've got to rally back and make plays.”
“I made some plays toward the end of that game that put us in jeopardy,” Sears said after the game, “but these guys picked me up. They told me they had my back and we went down and scored even after that errant pick six.”
Sears led his team on a 16-play, 72-yard game-winning touchdown drive. It featured a pair of fourth-and-1 conversions and a third down completion that featured Sears extending a play with a rollout and motioning tight end Isaac Rex to an open area before connecting with a pass that moved the Tritons down to the 1-yard line. They scored on the next play.
“You've got to have a short-term memory -- throw picks, throw touchdowns, fumble -- it's all a part of the game. Can't live on the past,” Sears said. “I’m just excited to have one more week as a Triton, be around this guys. Wasn't ready for it to be over.”
The game wasn’t over after Brandon Reaves’ one-yard scoring plunge. The Chargers still had a little less than a minute to try to drive down the field. They picked up a first down and San Clemente called a timeout. Sears was in the middle of the defensive huddle giving an impassioned speech to his teammates.
“We've been here before,” Sears said he told his teammates. “Last year, we went down for what we thought was a game-winning drive. Ended up losing on a Hail Mary. I like to remind the guys that we've been here before. We've lost it here. Let's go and make sure we do our job and let's finish this thing.”
San Clemente's Jack Sears and Austin Whitsett celebrate a Whitsett score early in a playoff game against Edison. (Shotgun Spratling)
Following another timeout, Ortiz threw Sears into the game as the deep safety. Last year’s play led to Ortiz taking over the defensive coordinator duties and one of the first things he chose to do was go over the Hail Mary and late-game situations. Ortiz wanted his best 11 guys on the field for those critical moments, so he made sure that Sears was prepared to be on the field.
On his first defensive play, Sears nearly sealed the game with an interception. “I thought I did for sure, but it was a little faster than I thought it was going to be.”
A penalty kept Edison’s drive going, but its final Hail Mary attempt from the 33-yard line floated out of the end zone for an incompletion, sending San Clemente to Sacramento to play Loomis (Calif.) Del Oro in the state finals.
Sears sprinted from the end zone where he was waiting to try to knock down a pass to midfield to shake hands with Chargers quarterback Griffin O’Connor. O’Connor finished with 369 yards and three touchdowns, besting Sears’ 262 yards (22-of-32) and three touchdowns, but Sears also ran for more than 75 yards and got the all-important victory in the win-loss column.
He had showed his ability to lead his team and his toughness throughout the game as he took some big shots from Edison. Sears displayed good speed and an ability to make guys miss when running the ball.
In the second half, San Clemente was forced to switch up its game plan and use more vertical passes with Edison clamping down on the run game and lateral air attack.
“They scouted us well. They knew our tendencies,” Sears said. “But our coaching staff does a great job with adjustments and making plays. Came out second half, trusted each other and got it done.”
Sears’s arm and touch were spotlighted as the Tritons started attacking down the field. He was able to connect on deep balls, leading the team to three touchdowns in the fourth quarter after the offense had only one in the first half.
But most importantly, he showed his resolve, bouncing back from his mistake to lead his team for the game-winning score. It was reminiscent the resiliency of former San Clemente quarterback, USC starter Sam Darnold, who was in attendance Saturday in Huntington Beach. Sears was appreciative to have his former San Clemente teammate and future USC teammate in attendance along with former Triton defensive back/receiver and current USC walk-on receiver Jake Russell.
“It's just a testament to the Triton program. I mean once a Triton, always a Triton. One town, one team,” Sears said. “We're always coming back. We're always supporting each other. It's great having them here cheering us on.”
Because of their quarterback’s heroics, the entire Triton family will have an one more opportunity to cheer them on this season.
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