Orange football has become a real crowd pleaser
ORANGE - Supporters cheered from the side of the road and parked cars honked as the yellow school buses loaded with football players, cheerleaders and band members circled the Old Towne plaza with their lights flashing late Thursday night.
One of the most unique and community-rich traditions in Orange County football was fully awake after a long slumber just two seasons ago.
“This is like some Texas (football) stuff,” Orange coach Robert Pedroza said of his team’s custom of touring the nearby plaza on their way back to school after a victory.
“It’s just such a great feeling to see all the fans out there cheering and the boys receiving that reaction from them. I’ve never seen anything like it in high school, around here at least.”
The city doesn’t shut down for high school football like some small towns in Texas, but Orange is clearly enthralled by the Panthers’ 6-0 start. (Note: Orange notified the CIF-SS on Wednesday that it would have to forfeit the win over Santa Ana because it used an ineligible player. The game against Santa Ana will be recorded as a loss for Orange.)
Two seasons removed from a 0-10 campaign, which included a loss by forfeit, Orange is off to its best start in several decades.
The Panthers and Pedroza, their second-year coach, have done their part to set the stage for the most memorable game for Orange since its 2005 run to the CIF finals. On Friday, Orange plays host to Segerstrom (6-0) in a Golden West League showdown at El Modena High.
The defending Golden West champion Jaguars are ranked No. 1 in Division 12, while the Panthers are second in Division 13.
Pedroza learned of Orange’s tradition from the players during his first season. A few of the kids hadn’t experienced the ritual because of their struggles in 2014.
“Coach, we haven’t been around the circle in two years,” they said.
Orange finished 4-6 last season but has reversed its fortunes for several reasons.
The arrival of Pedroza, 36, in the spring of 2014 tops the list.
He became the Panthers’ sixth coach since the departure of former Register coach of the year Greg Gibson following the 2006 season.
Pedroza arrived with a strong background in coaching defense, familiarity with the Orange program and a turnaround season on his resume.
He served as the defensive coordinator at Troy for three seasons. In 2014, Troy pushed a Trabuco Hills team with Colin and Brenden Schooler in the first round of the CIF-SS Southwest playoffs, losing, 52-28.
Before his stint with the Warriors, he was the defensive coordinator at Chino in 2010. He helped Chino go 11-1 after a winless 2009.
His familiarity with Orange traces to attending nearby Canyon in high school. Pedroza’s 80-year-old grandfather, Robert, played football at Orange.
“I always knew I wanted this job,” said Pedroza, a freshman seminar teacher at Orange who focuses on life skills with students.
“I knew the kind of kids they had here fit my style.”
Pedroza’s approach emphasizes year-round weight training, extra speed work and investing in the players.
A few days after last season ended, Orange’s players returned to the weight room to begin their first full offseason program under their new coach.
Pedroza also employs a speed training program introduced by Orange alumnus Kevin Walker of Xplosivity.
Pedroza said he learned his work ethic from his father, Bob, a maintenance worker at Buena Park High and former equipment manager at Mater Dei.
He also credits Coach Frank Mazzotta at Cerritos College, one of his mentors. But most of all, Pedroza credits his players for their commitment.
“We have a good senior class that just cares about winning and cares about everything we’re doing,” he said.
Orange’s cast of key contributors includes senior two-way lineman Noah Tiliaia-Faletoi, senior running back/cornerback Brandon Warren, junior cornerback Jordan Schmidt, sophomore quarterback Miguel Orendain, senior two-way lineman Cody Remigio, senior defensive end/tight end Jacob Tuua-Burch and senior middle linebacker Luis Correa.
Former Santa Ana Valley quarterback Jason Wilkinson, who had been at Villa Park, is playing safety, receiver and wing back.
Pedroza’s investment in the players includes a coaching staff with well-known Orange alumni and 12 different combinations of Nike uniforms.
Former Orange standouts Durrell Moss, Kirk Jones and Marcus Garza are assistant coaches. Defensive coordinator Justin Vasquez is a longtime Pedroza confidant.
The team’s fundraising efforts paid for the uniforms.
“This coaching staff is behind us all the way,” said Warren, the quarterback on the Panthers’ 0-10 season.
“All the work that they’re putting in just gives a lot of mentally tough kids here (a chance to) … play the game, help out of the city and win.”
Orange mayor Tita Smith has been amongst the crowd at the plaza. She also sent Pedroza a text message Thursday night after the Panthers’ 31-29 victory against Santa Ana.
“Congratulations to you and our magnificent Panthers,” Smith wrote Pedroza. “From our citizens and your mayor, we are so very proud of you.”
With one more victory Friday, which is the school’s homecoming game, there’s talk the city might shut down the plaza for just the Panthers.
“I love seeing the community come together,” Correa said. “We want the stands really packed and the circle getting bigger and bigger every week.”
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