Marlon Gardinera: State Coach of Year

State Coach of the Year Marlon Gardinera points to the camera during state title celebration after Scripps Ranch edged Wilcox of Santa Clara for D2-A crown. Photo: Mark Tennis.

Following San Mateo Serra’s Patrick Walsh for 2020-21, it became a perfect fit for another of the major coaches in the state who played a significant role in enabling there to be a season last spring to be named for the state’s most prestigious coaching honor. This is the one that goes back for more than 100 years. But San Diego Scripps Ranch head coach Marlon Gardinera has a story that goes way beyond his team winning the CIF D2-A state title and for what he did as a leader in a movement.

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There are a few other coaches from around the state — and from schools in higher divisions — who also would have been great picks to be the 2021 Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year. But for this year and for what name will be shown on the all-time list for years to come it proved to be an even stronger case for San Diego Scripps Ranch’s Marlon Gardinera.

If one were to know what Gardinera has overcome just to be coaching at all, him being the State Coach of the Year just puts some icing on the cake for a season that concluded for the Falcons (13-1) two weeks ago when they won the CIF Division 2-A state title with a last-second victory over Wilcox of Santa Clara.

“First, my reaction is disbelief,” Gardinera said about what he thought on Wednesday when he got the text that he would be this year’s honoree. “No. 2 is that it is validation not for me, but for the kids. This is a sign that we’re on the right plane and to keep going.”

Gardinera is the first State Coach of the Year from the San Diego Section since 2006 when the honor went to Bob McAllister of Carlsbad. Due to the division that Scripps Ranch played in — which also was D2 for the section — he also will go down as the State Medium Schools Coach of the Year. Because of that, we needed to select a Large School State Coach of the Year, which has gone to Greg Calcagno from St. Francis of Mountain View. The small schools honoree is Rick Davis from Argonaut of Jackson.

Gardinera raises CIF D2-A state title trophy about as high as possible after getting it from CIF officials. Photo: Mark Tennis / Cal-Hi Sports.

So how rare is it that the medium schools honoree has also been the choice for overall? We hadn’t done it before in football in all of the years since around 1980 in which the coaches of the year were selected and announced one or two weeks after a season. Cal-Hi Sports founder Nelson Tennis, after researching previous seasons, chose Ed Lloyd of Santa Rosa Cardinal Newman as medium schools and overall for 1975 and also did it for Bob Hitchcock of Temple City for 1972.

Winning a CIF state title isn’t necessarily a requirement for being State Coach of the Year, but for Gardinera it was and that almost didn’t happen. He admitted after the game that he decided to let Wilcox take the lead 28-24 on a 1-yard run by Luther Glenn with 2:17 left so that there would be time on the clock for his own offense to drive back down the field.

Junior QB Jax Leatherwood made that happen (after a scary moment when there was an interception nullified by a defensive holding penalty). Leatherwood got the Falcons into position on passes of 14 yards to Dean Paley and 25 yards to Dylan Wenger. Then on third-and-three from the 10-yard line, Leatherwood slipped the ball into Paley’s hands on a screen pass, who found a seam and ran for a touchdown with just 21 seconds left. Lamont Wilkerson then sealed the 31-28 win on an interception.

Gardinera described the 6-foot-8 Leatherwood as a “gangly giraffe” who came back in the fall having “figured it out” at the quarterback position.

“We thought we’d see how it translates when he got behind the line and nothing changed,” Gardinera said. “We beat La Jolla 52-51 which at the time had Washington committed QB Jackson Stratton (signed with Colorado State). It all just happened. Our offensive coordinator (Chris Blevins) kept adding layers every week. We over-achieved through sheer effort, attitude and heart.”

Leatherwood ended the game with 337 yards passing and four TDs. He also had 3,915 yards for the season with 52 TDs, which are totals that will get him into the state record book. Receiver Conor Lawlor had a historically great game and season as well with seven catches for 199 yards and three TDs for the game and 78 catches for 1,558 yards and 23 scores. Senior running back Jalen Shaw missed some games but still went for 1,043 yards with 17 TDs rushing, five receiving and one on defense.

“Usually coaches say they are proud of their players, but we’re proud of him,” Leatherwood said after the game. “He literally risked his life to coach us every day. We all want to do our best for him all the time.”

Another of the players on this year’s team at Scripps Ranch was sophomore running back-defensive back Noah Gardinera. He’s the younger brother of Marlon’s oldest son, Nicholas, who graduated last June and is now playing at San Diego State.

Nicholas also was the plaintiff in a lawsuit brought by the Gardinera family last spring against the state of California that was successful in that one judge ruled in favor of it and then the state decided not to appeal. This was also during the time in which a coaching alliance led by last season’s State Coach of the Year, Patrick Walsh from Serra of San Mateo, and including Justin Alumbaugh of Concord De La Salle and Ron Gladnick from Torrey Pines of San Diego was putting pressure on the Governor’s office and generating public support for a shortened California spring football season. That season took place with most teams playing five or six-game schedules.

“My first thought wasn’t so much about my son, but for a lot of the other kids that were just struggling without football,” Gardinera said. “He just said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to do something.'”

Gardinera said he just kept pushing and pushing the issue on Facebook and other social media. He also utilized some contacts he had with local TV stations and said it got to the point where he was on TV every day.

“It was the most incredible civics lesson you could have for a father and son,” he added. “But the most important thing is that 2.8 million kids in the state got to play sports when they might not have.”

Baseball Background

Growing up in San Diego, Gardinera was more of a baseball standout and was lucky enough to play at Mission Bay High. That’s a school that from 1977 to 2006 and from 2017-2020 was led in baseball by head coach Dennis Pugh, who is one of the winningest coaches in state history with 660 career wins.

Gardinera hugs his son, sophomore running back Noah Gardinera, during state championship celebration for Scripps Ranch of San Diego. Photo: Mark Tennis.

That Pugh being a State Coach of the Year in his sport (1996) and now Gardinera is the same for his sport was a fact that Gardinera was humbled to hear.

“I went to Mission Bay to play for that man,” Gardinera said of Pugh, who died at age 74 in May of 2020. “After my parents, he is the most influential person in my life.”

Gardinera said the most important aspects of coaching that he learned from Pugh were the details, such as wearing a nylon belt instead of the leather belt that was supposed to be worn.

“‘If you don’t want to wear the right belt, just go home,'” Pugh would tell his players,” Gardinera noted. “It was a very basic concept of setting high standards with high expectations and never, never relenting.”

After Mission Bay, Gardinera went to school and played at Oklahoma State where he learned a lot from longtime Cowboys’ head coach Gary Ward. In his final at-bat in college, Gardinera homered off of Cal State Fullerton’s Mark Kotsay, named just this week as the new manager of the Oakland Athletics.

As for football coaching, like many before him, Gardinera became involved at the Pop Warner level when Nicholas was young. He applied to be the freshman head coach at Scripps Ranch when Nicholas was at that grade level, but the school offered him the varsity head coaching job. That was only five years ago.

The Falcons had their first big run of success under Gardinera in 2019 when they were unbeaten in the regular season and were 12-0 heading into the D2 section finals until being upset, 17-10, by La Jolla.

“I don’t coach football for football,” Gardinera said. “It’s more about helping kids get ready for life.”

That comment is perhaps best represented by the grade demands that Gardinera puts on his players. He set it much higher than at most high schools because he says D3 colleges give scholarship money to players who have a 3.6 GPA in a given year. The team’s combined GPA in 2019 was 3.71 (a total that made Gardinera cry when he first heard about it). This year’s GPA also has now come in: 3.74.

A Life-Threatening &
Life-Changing Disease

As a person who had gone through the first 30 years of his life with no previous health concerns, Gardinera started experiencing the kind of pain in his hands and feet that one might get if they were hanging from a pull-up bar for more than several minutes. That was in December of 2007.

After visits to the doctor, in January of 2008, Gardinera and his wife, Tracy (a psychologist), were stunned to find out that he had Amyliodosis, which is a disease in which protein mutates around the body and attacks various organs. It had already reached Marlon’s major organs, especially his liver, and he was given only one or two years to live.

Gardinera gathers players not long after score went final in CIF D2-A state championship.

In 2009, in an effort to what Gardinera says was a re-setting of the clock for his liver, he received a transplant and he was able to donate his own to someone else. Gardinera is not cured, but has to take a heavy load of medicine to off-set his own chromosomal defect.

“A lot of the stuff that I have to take causes cancer,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s not a matter of if I’ll get cancer but when.”

The closest that Gardinera came to death was in 2013 when he woke up in the middle of the night with trouble breathing. He said he “coded out” several hours later and after an extended stay in the ICU he had to “learn how to walk again.”

Gardinera also is reminded of his continuing medical issues with pain in his hands and feet. And then of course now there is COVID and he is one who is most definitely immuno-compromised.

“I don’t touch fists, I don’t shake hands and the kids know to stay five yards away from me,” he said.

Due to his medical issues, Gardinera isn’t completely sure how long he’ll continue to be the head coach at Scripps Ranch. When he started, he told the school he would stay for Nicholas’ four years, then four years with Noah and then through the freshman class of Noah’s senior year.

“That 10-year plan is still the plan,” Gardinera said. “I just don’t know how I’ll feel when I have a few more years behind me. The only way I would step away is if I knew the program would stay the same or get better. And I know that both of our coordinators (Blevins & defensive coordinator John Taylor) could do that.”

In the end, it’s all about time. There’s the time that Gardinera has been able to spend with his sons and his wife since his health problems began in 2008. There’s the time that California’s graduating seniors of 2020 got to have with each other on a football field due in a large part to the actions of Gardinera. And there’s the final two minutes of a CIF state championship game that helped make Marlon Gardinera the 2021 State Coach of the Year.

Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year
All-Time Honor Roll
(All selections by
(*2020 season delayed until spring 2021 due to worldwide pandemic)

(Based on research by the late Nelson Tennis, our founder, prior to 1979)

State Coaches of the Year Bob Ladouceur (1986) and Patrick Walsh (2020) visit after Walsh’s team at Serra played in a CIF state final in 2019. Photo: Mark Tennis / Cal-Hi Sports.

2021 — Marlon Gardinera
(Scripps Ranch, San Diego) 12-1
2020 — Patrick Walsh (Serra, San Mateo) 5-0*
2019 — Jason Negro (St. John Bosco, Bellflower)
2018 — Michael Peters (McClymonds, Oakland)
2017 — Kris Richardson (Folsom) 16-0
2016 — Dave White (Edison, Huntington Beach)
2015 — Mike Janda (Bellarmine, San Jose) 13-2
2014 — Kurt Bruich (Redlands East Valley) 15-1
2013 — Ed Croson (Chaminade, West Hills) 14-2
2012 — Ernie Cooper (Granite Bay) 13-3
2011 — Mike Papadopoulos (Vacaville) 13-1
2010 — Earl Hansen (Palo Alto) 14-0
2009 — Jim Benkert (Westlake, Westl. Vill.) 14-0
2008 — Mike Alberghini (Grant, Sac.) 14-0
2007 — Ed Buller (Oak Grove, San Jose) 12-1
2006 — Bob McAllister (Carlsbad) 10-0-2
2005 — Harry Welch (Canyon, Canyon Country) 13-1
2004 — Matt Logan (Centennial, Corona) 13-1
2003 — Steve Grady (Loyola, Los Angeles) 11-3
2002 — Kevin Rooney (Notre Dame, Sherman Oaks) 14-0
2001 — Bob Johnson (Mission Viejo) 14-0
2000 — Jerry Jaso (Poly, Long Beach) 14-0
1999 — Mike Herrington (Hart, Newhall) 14-0
1998 — Randy Blankenship (Clovis West, Fresno) 12-1
1997 — John Beam (Skyline, Oakland) 12-0
1996 — Dave Silveira (Alhambra, Martinez) 13-0
1995 — Larry Welsh (Atascadero) 14-0
1994 — Bruce Rollinson (Mater Dei, Santa Ana) 14-0
1993 — John Barnes (Los Alamitos) 14-0
1992 — Mark Paredes (Bishop Amat, La Puente) 15-0
1991 — Herb Meyer (El Camino, Oceanside) 13-1
1990 — Pat Preston (Bakersfield) 13-0
1989 — Dick Bruich (Fontana) 14-0
1988 — Norm Dow (Live Oak, Morgan Hill) 11-0-1
1987 — Bennie Edens (Point Loma, San Diego) 13-0
1986 — Bob Ladouceur (De La Salle, Concord) 12-0
1985 — Charlie Wedemeyer (Los Gatos) 13-1
1984 — Tim Simons (Clovis) 12-0-1
1983 — Ron Calcagno (St. Francis, Mountain View) 13-0
1982 — Wayne Schneider (Tracy) 12-1
1981 — Marijon Ancich (St. Paul, Santa Fe Springs) 14-0
1980 — Bill Workman (Edison, Huntington Beach) 14-0
1979 — Ron Lancaster (Cordova, Rancho Cordova) 13-0
1978 — Jerry Deuker (Pinole Valley, Pinole) 11-1
1977 — Chris Ferragamo (Banning, Wilmington) 11-1-1
1976 — Benny Pierce (Saratoga) 13-0
1975 — Ed Lloyd (Cardinal Newman, Santa Rosa) 12-0
1974 — Dick Haines (Vista) 13-0
1973 — Dwayne DeSpain (Los Altos, Hacienda Heights) 12-0-1
1972 — Bob Hitchcock (Temple City) 13-0
1971 — Gene Vollnogle (Carson) 12-0
1970 — Jack Neumeier (Granada Hills) 11-1
1969 — Forrest Klein (Alameda) 9-0
1968 — Tom Burt (Los Altos) 9-0
1967 — Clare Van Hoorebeke (Anaheim) 12-1
1966 — Ernie Johnson (El Rancho, Pico Rivera) 13-0
1965 — Dick Coury (Mater Dei, Santa Ana) 12-0-1
1964 — John Hanna (Bellarmine, San Jose) 10-0
1963 — Paul Briggs (Bakersfield) 9-0
1962 — Bob Berry (Willow Glen, San Jose) 9-0
1961 — Joe Marvin (Sequoia, Redwood City) 9-0
1960 — Sam Cathcart (Santa Barbara) 11-1
1959 — Dave Levy (Long Beach Poly) 11-0
1958 — Paul Huebner (Banning, Wilmington) 11-0
1957 — Johnny Johnson (Oroville) 9-0
1956 — Dick Hill (Downey) 12-0-1
1955 — Duane Maley (San Diego) 11-0-1
1954 — Aaron Wade (Centennial, Compton) 10-1-1
1953 — Milt Axt (Poly, San Francisco) 10-0
1952 — Fred Moffett (Berkeley) 9-0
1951 — Hod Ray (Palo Alto) 8-0
1950 — Ernie Busch (Merced) 11-0
1949 — Bob Patterson (Vallejo) 10-0
1948 — Harry Edelson (Fremont, Los Angeles) 9-0-1
1947 — Jim Sutherland (Santa Monica) 12-0
1946 — George Hobbs (Alhambra) 12-0
1945 — Colon Kilby (Vallejo) 10-0
1944 — Bert LaBrucherie (Los Angeles) 7-0
1943 — Larry Siemering (Stockton) 10-0
1942 — Brick Johnson (Piedmont) 7-0
1941 — Roy Richert (Castlemont, Oakland) 5-0-1
1940 — Clarence Schutte (Santa Barbara) 9-1
1939 — Palmer Muhl (Woodland) 8-0
1938 — Ras Johnson (Galileo, San Francisco) 8-0-1
1937 — Jim Blewett (Manual Arts, Los Angeles) 8-0
1936 — Harlan Lee (Red Bluff) 7-0-1
1935 — Paul Hungerford (Poly, San Francisco) 9-0
1934 — Orian Landreth (Long Beach Poly, Long Beach) 12-1
1933 — Dick Arnett (Inglewood) 8-2-1
1932 — Harry Shipkey (Salinas) 11-0
1931 — Tex Oliver (Santa Ana) 13-0
1930 — John Price (Bonita, La Verne) 10-0

List continues back to 1896 in State Record Book & Almanac.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports

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