JSerra's Conor O'Brien, left and Luke Wattenberg stand next to the football team's pyramid of success, which is outside the weight room.

JSerra confident it can handle next wave of challenges


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO The picture gazes down from a perch near the entrance to the cavernous weight room, an unofficial greeter for JSerra’s football team.

In the photo, about 25 of the school’s players, all dressed in Navy SEAL fatigues, have locked arms as they step into a dark ocean while an ominous wave approaches. Added to the photo are four words in bold, red letters:


If JSerra’s football team needs a reminder about how to handle the challenges that are rolling its way, this prized lesson from Navy SEAL camp should work. In March, members of the Lions’ team took part in an all-day training session in San Diego with the special operations unit. The experience lives on within the JSerra program.

“Hardest 12 hours of our life,” said Conor O’Brien, a senior wide receiver and safety.

“We had to lean on each other and focus on getting each other across the finish line.”


A poster-sized display of the Register’s final Orange County football rankings from 2014 jumps into view as players leave JSerra’s underground weight room.

Outlined in bright red, it’s a constant reminder for the Lions (10-2) about the strides they made last fall. They reached the CIF-SS playoffs for the first time. They won their first playoff game. They beat Trinity League rival Mater Dei for the first time. They finished No. 1 in the county for the first time.

“I’m trying to teach the kids that there are a lot of things that are still out there that we can accomplish,” JSerra coach Jim Hartigan said.

The offseason ushered in murky personnel questions for 2015 due to graduation and high-profile transfers.

Graduation sent All-County quarterback Nick Robinson to Georgia as a preferred walk-on, and All-County defensive lineman D.J. Bailey to Harvard. There were five other seniors on last year’s team that earned first-team all-Trinity League status.

The transfer news broke during the spring. All-County running back Edward Vander left JSerra to return to Paramount, the school he played for in 2013. Two-way starter Isaiah Diego-Williams, a cornerback/wide receiver who had a strong track season, later transferred to Serra of Gardena.

The loss of so much talent could have created a distraction, but the Lions remain confident.

“A lot of people say JSerra was a fluke (last season),” O’Brien said. “But we’re going to be just as good this year.”

O’Brien said the Navy SEAL training strengthened the players’ mental toughness.

Under the supervision of active and retired SEAL members, the players were put through a series of grueling tasks, which included beach exercises at 4 a.m., carrying heavy logs and carrying 270-pound left tackle Luke Wattenberg on a stretcher.

And there was “The Murph.”

“We ran back from the beach to the (SEAL) training facility and everybody is thinking we’re done … and we’re going to get lunch,” O’Brien said.

“They push us right back into doing the ‘Murph’ workout. Basically, it’s 300 squats, 200 push-ups and 100 pull-ups.

“And before that, you have run a mile and after finishing the squats, and the push-ups and the pull-ups, you got to run another mile. … Everybody’s legs are cramping, but we had to push the big guys through. It was probably the most memorable thing.”


JSerra doesn’t need to search far for lessons on resiliency.

O’Brien said last season’s seniors showed the dedication and spirit needed to succeed in one of the toughest football leagues in the nation.

“(It’s) the attitude” he said. “It’s a lot of perseverance because Coach Hartigan is a tough guy. We’re out here grinding every single day.

“We got to work a lot harder than the other teams because they have physically more athletic players, but we have to get through the hard times … the conditioning and weight room.”

The Lions’ resiliency turned to grit in 2014. They showed determination by beating Santa Margarita and Mater Dei by just a touchdown in each game and defeating Orange Lutheran by four points.

Wattenberg credits the seniors on the team for the success. Individually, he praised Bailey, his practice opponent, for helping him improve.

“They definitely set a very, very high standard for us,” said Wattenberg, a three-year starter. “Practicing against good players makes a good team.”

For this upcoming campaign, the team’s pyramid of success includes winning Trinity, Pac-5 Division and state titles. On their way to the weight room, the players pass a mural with those goals on it.

The Lions plan to replace Robinson – a three-year starter -- with O’Brien’s brother, Riley, or Robinson’s brother, Matthew.

Avery Williams, a transfer from St. Francis of La Canada, could fill Vander’s spot at running back. Williams also plays safety and Riley O’Brien plays cornerback.

JSerra returns only three starters on defense - the O’Brien brothers and middle linebacker Kyle Adams.

“That is what’s got me on edge,” Hartigan said of so many new starters in this year’s lineup. “There’s unknown. … but it’s a team game.”

The Lions don’t return any starting defensive linemen, but they could boast the best offensive line in the county. Wattenberg (6-5, 270) and center Nick Harris (6-2, 275) have committed to Washington. They team with guards Shane Avera (6-3, 275) and Zelan Tupuola (6-3, 283) and promising sophomore Jake Parks (6-4, 275) at right tackle.

While the Lions’ situation might appear somewhat daunting in such a difficult league, so was the Navy SEAL training. That was an experience picked by Hartigan specifically for this team.

“We talk about mental toughness and being resilient (and) gritty,” said Hartigan, the Register’s coach of the year last season. “We came from a beginning (as a program) where we were getting hammered by everybody. We all got sick of it. … We don’t want to go back there.”

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