2021 was one of the best seasons for San Diego high school football.
Long a hotbed for individual talent, the county has lived in the shadow of other areas in California. For years, the coaches in the area have been working, usually outside of the eye of the public eye, to provide more opportunities for local players while improving the overall quality of play on the field. This month, the fruit of that labor shined for all to see.
The difficulty in gaining respect for the county’s football community is rooted in the abstract nature of high school sports.
Without succumbing to generalizations, how does one properly compare Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego with Fall River Jr. and Sr. High in McArthur, California? This difficulty has led to mythical championships and rankings that are traditionally skewed against the teams from America’s Finest City. Fittingly then, the resurgence of San Diego high school football can be seen most clearly by the number three.
According to the essay The Origin of Sacred Numbers published in American Anthropologist, “The number 3 derives its sacredness from abstract, subjective operations of the intelligence, and has its main application in the imaginary and non-phenomenal world.” A more accurate definition of the hierarchy in high school sports could never have been written.
3 State Champions
Among the fifteen State Champions in California, three hail from San Diego. In fact, teams from the region won three of the top five division championships in the state. The three wins were the most by any county in California. San Francisco and Marin counties each had two.
In a revenge matchup from the 2014 and 2018 state title games, Cathedral Catholic defeated Folsom High School 33-21. The Dons were paced by SDSU signee RB Lucky Sutton’s 241 yards, QB Charlie Mirer’s three touchdowns, and a powerful defense that kept the Bulldogs in check. With the win, Cathedral Catholic brought the Division 1-AA title back to San Diego.
“Cathedral will still have a target on their back going into next season,” Don’s offensive lineman Rambo Mageo said. “Everyone wants to be #1 in SD, but in order to be #1, you have to beat the #1 team, which is Cathedral.”
Mater Dei Catholic in Chula Vista capped its undefeated season with a win over Modesto Central Catholic 34-25. The Crusaders conquered the Raiders with an opportunistic defense that forced three early turnovers and helped Mater Dei race out to a 27-7 lead. In that stretch, sophomore Isaiah Buxton provided the game’s highlight, returning an interception 88 yards for a touchdown. The South County powerhouse earned the Division 2-AA state title with the victory.
“This win means a lot for the Mater Dei football program,” Buxton told EVT. “We got a chance to prove a lot of people wrong and show we belong. We got to show everyone what Mater Dei football is about. A great win with a great group of coaches and players. But time to get back to work to try and do it again next year!!”
Behind the late-game heroics of QB Jax Leatherwood, Scripps Ranch rallied to defeat Wilcox High School 31-28. The Falcons opened up a 21-0 lead but gave up the go-ahead score with 2:17. Trailing 28-23, Leatherwood, who finished the game with 372 yards and four touchdowns, engineered a scoring drive that culminated in a touchdown pass to WR Dean Paley. With the win, Scripps Ranch hoisted the Division 2-A state crown.
“For any San Diego team to win a state championship is incredible, but it’s even more amazing when it’s a public school such as Scripps,” Leatherwood told EVT. “Scripps Ranch’s win showed everyone that a team that’s smaller and doubted by many can play with enough heart to win in big games.”
“The SD football community is absolutely amazing. We have a support system here that I don’t believe anyone in the state could match,” former SDSU Aztec player and current Montgomery High assistant coach TJ McKay told EVT. “Seeing the success of teams from our division makes you feel like we’re all winning… All three squads have brought a tremendous amount of pride to us all.”
3 Teams in the Final State Rankings
When the final state rankings were released, San Diego County placed three teams in the top 25. Cathedral led the city with the number five overall slot. Mater Dei followed them at 23 and Carlsbad High at 25. A trio of other schools rounded out the top 50. Scripps Ranch slotted in at 40, Helix at 43, and Lincoln at 44. 10% of the best schools in the state play in the San Diego area. That is an impressive accomplishment.
“Being in San Diego now for 18 years and coaching for 5, I’m a firm believer in the talent we have here,” Mckay said. “I believe accomplishing that has put the rest of the state on notice, San Diego football is here and ready to compete against the best! Something that we’ve always known.”
Fans of the SDSU football program speak about “building a fence around San Diego county” to keep all the top talent home for their college careers. In 2018, they came closest to accomplishing it. A total of 10 local players chose to call the Mesa their home. 30% of those players developed into All-Americans.
Rancho Bernardo’s Matt Araiza, Carlsbad’s Cameron Thomas, and Eastlake’s William Dunkle embraced the challenge and opportunity of playing in front of the people who know them best. Even in Carson, a cutout of Dunkle in his Titan uniform would occupy a seat at games. The celebrity of Araiza’s rise passed on to his mother. Last month when she called in to request a song on 101.5FM, the local DJ stopped his show to comment on how “cool” it was to talk to “Matt Araiza’s mom.” Thomas’ connection to the Aztec and his personal community was cemented by escorting his brother Zach out the tunnel on Senior Day a few weeks ago. When the team existed basically in a bubble in 2020, the Thomas brothers were the only Aztecs to enjoy Thanksgiving with family…each other.
“It’s definitely big for the city because we had, I think, ten guys stay from the 619,” Dunkle said in SDSU’s weekly press conference. “To have three of us out of that class get All-Americans, it’s just an amazing honor. It’s more a testament to our team because we would never have gotten those honors if we didn’t win 11 games.”
“Just like Dunkle said, I think we had ten guys in our class come from San Diego to San Diego State,” Thomas added. “Just showing that the local talent is some of the best in the country. It means a lot for our program.”
3 Hometown Heroes
During the three-day early signing period, San Diego celebrated the signing of another tremendous group of high school seniors. There will be local players from around the county heading all over America to pursue their academic interests while playing the game they love. Each will be followed, celebrated, and cheered for at the colleges they attend.
However, there is something special when local prep stars stay home to continue their careers at the local schools. Three local players chose to become Hometown Heroes with the Aztecs during the early signing period. Mageo and Lucky Sutton from Cathedral, along with Eastlake’s Trey White, have elected to be part of the first recruiting class to spend their entire time on Mesa, calling Snapdragon Stadium their home.
Part of the legacy of the San Diego trio that grew into All-Americans is that every local player who commits to staying home will be compared to them. It is easy to wonder if Mageo will be the next Dunkle or if White will develop into the next Thomas. Perhaps most intriguing is wondering if Sutton can climb to the same heights of college football fame as Araiza and be the elusive back San Diego has waited a lifetime for?
Heisman Trophy winners Marcus Allen, Rashaad Salam, Ricky Williams, and Reggie Bush were prepped locally but brought fame and notoriety to other cities. America’s Finest City has long wondered what those backs would have done wearing the Red and Black. Will Sutton be the Hometown Hero San Diego has been searching for?
“There is no doubt that we want more kids (from San Diego),” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said on Wednesday. “Do I get disappointed when a kid doesn’t come or goes to another university? Yes, that disappoints me. … One thing I talked about at a clinic for San Diego area coaches was that ‘yeah, we want your guys. We’re going to ask you help in keeping your kids here.'”