O.C. Boys Athlete of the Year: Sam Darnold, San Clemente

“One town, one team” is not the official motto of San Clemente High, although it accurately summarizes the close school-community relationship.

That dynamic produced one heck of an athlete this year.

Sam Darnold led San Clemente to a CIF-SS football championship game while setting school passing records. He was the Register’s Orange County offensive player of the year.

Darnold pushed the school’s basketball team to an undefeated record in the South Coast League and was the league’s co-MVP.

It’s one town, one team and one more award for Darnold. He is the Register’s Orange County Boys Athlete of the Year.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior broke school records for completions (234), passing yards (2,996), passing touchdowns (39) and total offense (3,771 yards). Darnold was the CIF-SS Southwest Division offensive player of the year. He signed with USC.

On the basketball court he averaged 15 points and nine rebounds a game, both team highs. Darnold was named South Coast League co-MVP with teammate Nick Crankshaw, All-CIF Division 1AA second team and All-County fourth team.

San Clemente football coach Jaime Ortiz said Darnold has not only the physical tools, but also something that is rarely seen.

“Sam has that ‘it’ factor,” Ortiz said. “You can’t describe it and you can’t explain it. He has this ability to do things that most players can’t.”

Darnold’s finest night of the football season happened in the Tritons’ biggest game, the CIF-SS Southwest Division championship game. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.

That game was a wild affair, which Trabuco Hills won, 44-37.

“The ending was not the best ending,” Darnold said.

The march to the Sea View League championship and through the playoffs helped the school get through a difficult year. The death of popular ex-Tritons football player Nick Pasquale in September 2013 lingers, the school rallied around cheerleader Saylor Voris as she battled leukemia before succumbing in April, and more recently Michael Halt was relieved of his duties as San Clemente principal.

“The passing of Nick still bugs us and it’s still around,” Darnold said. “Crazy things happened. The season we had helped lift up the spirit of the community.”

After such a long and emotionally taxing football season, Darnold had to decide if he would play basketball his senior year.

“I thought about it for about a minute,” he said. “The way our semesters overlap, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to leave early to play spring football for USC. So I thought, ‘you know what, let’s just play basketball.’”

San Clemente basketball coach Marc Popovich is glad he did.

Darold moves quickly and smoothly for his size. He has a good shooting touch and, of course, can handle anything inside.

“What makes Sam so special is his physicality and his ability to play inside and outside,” Popovich said. “He’s so good with his body and getting into position. Sam got more offensive rebounds off of missed free throws than anybody I’ve ever seen.”

The Tritons went 8-0 in the South Coast League. They finished 19-8 overall.

Darnold was named Orange County Football Player of the Year by the Brea Lions. Darnold also was named Orange County Male Athlete of the Year by the Orange County Athletic Directors Association.

“With kids now, it’s mostly about ‘me, me, me,’” Ortiz said. “With Sam, it’s all about team and community. That’s what I’ve admired most about him.”

Popovich agreed.

“He’s a fantastic kid, with all of the athletic skills to go with his leadership skills,” he said. “He really is the complete package.”

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