The most outstanding players and teams during the 2022 Southland football season

We made it!

Sixteen weeks of high school football ended Saturday night with no COVID shutdowns, no wild fires disrupting games, no lawsuits distracting teams or fans.

The journey started in Allen, Texas, in August when Bellflower St. John Bosco demolished one of Texas’ top teams 52-14 in a sold-out stadium. The season ended Saturday night with St. John Bosco demolishing Northern California’s best team, San Mateo Serra, 45-0 at Saddleback College in the CIF Open Division state championship bowl game.

The drama has been pretty much removed at the highest level of football in Southern California. From the first practices in July, it always was going to come down to whether St. John Bosco or Santa Ana Mater Dei would be winning the final game of 2022. It’s been that way since 2016. And it will continue that way in 2023. They’ve separated themselves in accumulating so much talent and depth that everyone else is playing for third or fourth place.

The domination is similar to the days when a single team in Northern California, Concord De La Salle, was winning 151 consecutive games. Coach Jason Negro said Saturday night, “At the end of the day, you’ve got to give us credit because what we’ve done is we’ve realized what we needed to do to be successful to knock off the De La Salles. To knock off the Mater Deis. To knock off any and all comers across the country.”

St. John Bosco quarterback Pierce Clarkson holds up the state championship trophy as coach Jason Negro celebrates.

(Craig Weston)

Those who think two teams dominating is not good for high school football might want to make their displeasure known soon, because the Southern Section is in the process of hiring a successor to Rob Wigod as the new commissioner. One of the questions the Executive Committee should ask candidates in the interview process is for ideas on making the Division 1 playoffs more competitive.

This season will be remembered for the quality of individual players making an impact.

For pure excitement, nothing compared to waiting for Rodrick Pleasant of Gardena Serra to get his hands on a ball, whether with an interception or kickoff return, then seeing his speed kick in — he’s run the 100 meters in 10.14 seconds.

Speed was a big divider. Receiver Makai Lemon of Los Alamitos proved himself to be the best receiver in the state in helping the Griffins reach the Division 1 semifinals.

Dijon Stanley of Granada Hills used his 400-meter speed to make defenders feel helpless, rushing for 378 yards in the City Section Division I championship game.

Junior Peyton Waters of Birmingham helped his team expand its winning streak to 34 games against City Section opponents by starring at cornerback, receiver and wildcat quarterback.

Senior linebacker Leviticus Su’a of Mater Dei was so good that he earned MVP honors in the powerful Trinity League.

Freshman quarterback Brady Smigiel of Newbury Park turned out to be better than advertised, passing for 3,479 yards and 46 touchdowns. Against rival Thousand Oaks, he was intercepted three times in the first quarter. His team fell behind 20-0. Did he pout? Did he rage? Did he make excuses? He rallied his team to tie the Lancers and send the game into overtime before losing 41-38. A star quarterback was born.

Bruce Rollinson announced he would be retiring after 34 years as head coach at Mater Dei on a Thursday night before the team’s first playoff game. The school president says it was Rollinson’s decision. Whenever the Diocese of Orange decides to release a safety assessment of the Monarchs’ athletic program that has been “in progress” for more than a year, perhaps more will be learned.

The team of the year not named St. John Bosco was Laguna Hills, which went 15-1 and was the only team from Southern California to travel to rain-drenched Northern California and come away with a state title. The Hawks rallied from a 27-7 halftime deficit to win the 3-A title over San Jose Bellarmine 28-27. Running back Troy Leigber contributed an astounding 52 touchdowns this season.

In a changing environment where what happens at the pro and college level trickles down to high schools, there are lots of issues ahead, from name, image and likeness to the future of competitive equity in the playoffs when there’s no competitiveness at the highest level.

There are disagreements that might never be resolved, but let’s not forget inspiring moments, such as teams that haven’t won titles in years finding success, such as Laguna Beach and San Gabriel.

And then there’s the return of swagger to Crenshaw, which won the City Section Division III championship after coming close to shutting down its program during the pandemic days.

“It was very close,” Garrett said. “Even this summer, the team was close to disbanding.”

The Cougars are on the way back with 20 underclassmen committed to playing football.

“I’m smiling,” Garrett said. “These kids are great.”

Staff writer Luca Evans contributed to this column.

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