Somebody asked how long have I been covering Orange County high school sports.
There were some years as a part-timer at the Register, late-1970s through early 1980s with a few games during the latter half of the ’80s. I started covering high school sports here full-time starting with the 1990-91 school year – so I consider this my 33rd year.
That somebody also said, how about listing the best Orange County football players you’ve seen during that time?
OK, nobody asked me to do that. I’m going to do it anyways. The recent selection of the first 100 players selected to the new California High School Football Hall of Fame was partly the inspiration to finish the list.
These 33 Orange County players were selected — and ranked — based on how good they were in high school, not for what they did after they left high school.
So Matthew Slater is not on here. Slater is an eight-time NFL Pro Bowl player, but he was not the type of player at Servite that would get on a list of the top county players over the last three-plus decades.
And this covers only the seasons since 1990, so players like 1970s stars Kerwin Bell of Edison and Myron White of Valley and 1980s stars like Steve Beurlein of Servite and Bret Johnson of El Toro are not on here.
And if you’re saying to yourself “did you consider this guy … ” Yes, I did. I pulled these players from a list of 87 candidates. It was painful to exclude players from the final list. It was a summer of second-guessing myself while putting this together.
Here they are, the top 33 players (in my opinion) for 33 years of covering Orange County high school football …
1. Matt Grootegoed, Mater Dei, RB/DB, 1998 senior season. He was the best two-way player of the past 30 years. “Groots” rushed for 244 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries and made a bunch of tackles in Mater Dei’s 33-26 upset win over Long Beach Poly in the 1998 CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship game at Angel Stadium. That is the best football any Orange County player has played since 1990.
2. Tony Gonzalez, Huntington Beach, TE/LB, 1993. Of course he couldn’t be covered in high school. Gonzalez also was a terrific linebacker.
Tustin running back DeShaun Foster, right, went on to star at UCLA and in the NFL. (File photo: Orange County Register)
3. DeShaun Foster, Tustin, RB/LB, 1997. Speed, power and desire made Foster the county’s best running back since 1990. Was it an illusion, or did Foster, playing defense, really make an interception at the opponent’s 15-yard line and take it into the end zone in three strides?
4. Carson Palmer, Santa Margarita, QB, 1997. His right arm was a rocket launcher. His accuracy was amazing.
5. Chris Galippo, Servite, RB/LB, 2006. Galippo was Orange County’s Junior Seau, a linebacker who made tackles from sideline to sideline. He also was a powerful running back.
6. Matt Leinart, Mater Dei, QB, 2000. Leinart could throw it deep, and also had the best touch pass of any county quarterback of the past 30 years.
7. Matt Barkley, Mater Dei, QB, 2008. He was extraordinarily polished as a freshman, and kept getting better from there.
8. Kevin Feterik, Los Alamitos, QB, 1995. A great arm, great pocket composure and great vision.
9 Travis Kirschke, Esperanza, DL, 1992. Double-teamed or triple-teamed, it didn’t matter. Kirschke was going to mess up your offense.
10. Chris Draft, Valencia, RB/LB, 1993. A tremendous all-around player. Today I say he was better as a running back. Tomorrow I’ll probably say he was better as a linebacker.
11. Greg Gaines, La Habra, DL, 2013: Impossible to block, and never missed a tackle.
12. JT Daniels, Mater Dei, QB, 2017. If you like strong-armed quarterbacks who make impeccable decisions, this is your guy.
13. Bryce Young, Mater Dei, QB, 2019. Smooth, calm and made great decisions, and could flick it 40 yards on the move. Young might have had the quickest release of any county quarterback going back to 1990.
14. Kyle Murphy, San Clemente, OL, 2011. He was our offensive player of the year in 2010, a rare achievement for a lineman.
15. Preston King, Tesoro, WR/DB, 2008. Among the county’s all-time great playmakers, on offense and defense.
16. Marty Tadman, Mission Viejo, WR/DB, 2003. Receptions, interceptions, punt returns and kickoff returns for touchdowns. A thoroughly entertaining and effective football player.
San Clemente quarterback Sam Darnold slipped out of the sack attempt by Foothill’s Jack Campbell in the first half of a 2014 CIF-SS playoff game at Tustin High School . (File photo: Bill Alkofer, Orange County Register)
17. Sam Darnold, San Clemente, QB, 2014. He was a splendid passer, but I liked him best when he’d tuck the ball to run and knock linebackers on their backs.
18. Jed Collins, Mission Viejo, LB, 2003. Tackles for loss was his specialty. He also was an outstanding holes-creating fullback.
19. Mike Patterson, Los Alamitos, DL, 2000. Patterson was a dominating lineman, so quick off the ball.
20. Reuben Droughns, Anaheim, RB/LB, 1994. He would drag tacklers along when he was carrying the ball, and he would smash opponents carrying the ball.
21. Josh Webb, Garden Grove, RB/DB, 2010. He was the best player in the county in 2010 when he carried the Argonauts to a CIF championship.
22. Brad Melsby, Los Alamitos, WR, 1994. At a school that has produced so many great receivers, Melsby’s speed and hands put him at the top of an excellent class.
23. Denny Flanagan, Edison, WR, 2001. Flanagan had an incredible knack for finding ways to get open and catch any Tommy Grady pass in his vicinity.
24. Mark Sanchez, Mission Viejo/Santa Margarita, QB, 2004. Smooth, strong-armed and tougher than many gave him credit for.
25. Ronnie Hillman, La Habra, RB, 2008. Super-fast, and the best pass-catching back of these 33 years.
26. Aaron Porter, La Habra, LB, 2010. A search-and-destroy linebacker who hit like a truck.
27. Jordan Zumwalt, Edison, LB, 2009. Zumwalt was an excellent tackler, but his speed really was his chief asset.
28. Tetairoa McMillen, Servite, WR, 2021. “TMac” jumped like an NBA basketball player and made sensational catches like an NFL football player.
29. Rhema McKnight, Kennedy, WR/DB, 2001. McKnight was the total package of speed, power and football instincts.
Mater Dei’s Amon-Ra St. Brown jumps over Mission Viejo defenders for some extra yardage in the semifinals of the Division 1 football playoffs in Mission Viejo on Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)
30. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Mater Dei, WR, 2017. While spectacular catches were routine for him, it was the yards-after-catch that were most impressive.
31. Mike Jones, Laguna Hills, RB, 1997. He is the county career leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. He didn’t do that against Division 1 competition, but put a Division 1 offensive line in front of him and he still would have created great numbers.
32. Clark Phillips, La Habra, DB, 2019. Phillips might be the best cover-corner since 1990 and was excellent when he was sent out to play receiver, too.
33. Evan Moore, Brea Olinda, WR, 2003. Big and fast, he was one of the better all-around athletes to play in the county.