Chandler Fincher knows how football is supposed to be played and what role the sport is supposed to play in the culture and our everyday lives.
The Corona del Mar High senior has lived in Southern California nearly a decade, but his heart — and his attitudes toward the game — are all Texas, and he plays with a fierceness borne of his Dallas hometown.
It’s paid off handsomely for the top-seeded Sea Kings (13-0), who play in Friday’s CIF Southern Section Division 3 final against No. 2 Simi Valley Grace Brethren (12-1) at Newport Harbor High at 7:30 p.m., their sixth section title game since 2011. Shutting down opponents’ passing attacks has been pivotal to CdM’s success in this year’s postseason run, and Fincher, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound cornerback, is key to that.
“It’s rare that we have someone of his abilities coming to our program, because I think he may very well be the best corner we’ve had since we’ve been here,” said head coach Dan O’Shea, who arrived at CdM as the defensive coordinator in 2011. “He’s got good size, a good frame to begin with, but he runs differently than anyone else on our team.
“His ability to change directions and accelerate in coverage when the ball’s in the air — what they call recovery speed or closing speed — is freakish. He’s just a different type athlete than we’ve ever had here at Corona del Mar, and certainly in our secondary.”
Fincher was at his best in last week’s 48-21 semifinal triumph at No. 4 Mission Hills Alemany, taking away the Warriors’ long-ball capabilities with blanket coverage of star receiver DJ Justice — and Ephesians Prysock a bit, too — and two early interceptions of standout quarterback Miller Moss that enabled the Sea Kings to take command.
It was an opportunity to show off his skills. CdM didn’t play many passing teams during the regular season, and when it did, opponents were careful to avoid throwing near Fincher, an All-CIF Division 4 selection in his junior year. Playoff foes aren’t as familiar with him — “Nor do they care,” O’Shea says — and have had no qualms issuing a challenge. Wrong move.
“I’ve kind of turned it on this playoffs, because I kind of get less respect when we play these teams like [quarterfinal foe San Bernardino] Cajon and Alemany, and I love that,” said Fincher, who also had an interception in CdM’s 42-14 win over Cajon on Nov. 16. “It gives me more opportunity to shine, and when I get that opportunity, I’m going to make plays.”
Fincher arrived on campus as a quarterback but played running back on the freshman team, rushing for more than 1,000 yards. As a sophomore, he stepped away from the program to focus on lacrosse, discovered how much he missed football, and was back as a junior. He’d never played on defense and faced a stiff learning curve.
“You can ask anybody on this whole team, I started off in seven-on-seven [during the summer in 2018], and I had no clue what I was doing,” he said. “I couldn’t even get Cover 3 down. It was bad. But I figured out that I was better playing [man-to-man defense rather than zone], and then it just started clicking.
“Then I got my head in the game. I knew if I want to play at the next level, then I have to get this stuff down. It only took me about six months.”
Fincher, who didn’t play lacrosse as a junior, has worked extensively with defensive backs coach Tony Thornton on his technique and schematic understanding. He returned for his second season in the secondary bigger, stronger and — after CdM fell to Grace Brethren 26-14 in last year’s Division 4 final — a lot hungrier.
He prodded the Sea Kings toward a desired rematch with the Lancers during a tight first half last week. They swapped touchdowns with Alemany for a 14-14 score through the first quarter, and defensive adjustments had canceled out the Warriors’ effective screen-passing attack. So Moss, who is being recruited by all the big powers and had four college-bound receivers to choose from — “certainly the best quarterback we’ve seen all year,” O’Shea said — went long.
Fincher didn’t allow a completion and ended successive Alemany drives with interceptions, which CdM’s explosive offense turned into a 28-14 advantage, and, as O’Shea put in, “the game’s in a completely different place.” The Sea Kings pulled away from there.
Fincher has received some preferred walk-on offers from colleges, but O’Shea says he’s “a scholarship Division I talent” and that better offers should arrive when the season’s over. No word on whom he’s talking to, but the coach knows where he most wants to play.
“I’ll tell you what,” O’Shea said, “I’m not sure anyone around here is more proud to be from Texas than Chandler is. He’s a big fan of SMU football, and I think he has some real aspirations — I think they’re valid — to go play football at SMU.”
O’Shea likes that Fincher “takes great pride in being from the Dallas area” and that his background lets him bring “a different bit of confidence and edge and swagger, if you will, to our team, and he does it in a Texas style that is really neat to watch.”
Fincher said he “first put on pads early,” when he was 5 years old. But his family moved to Orange County when he was in fourth grade — first to Huntington Beach, then San Clemente, and then to Newport Beach before he started high school — and it was tough for him, in one regard.
“In Texas, football, it’s like church,” Fincher said. “Everyone does it, everyone’s good at it, it’s part of everyone’s day, everyone on Saturday and Sunday watches football with their families. So moving from football out there to out here is a lot different.
“Out here, I wouldn’t say it’s not taken seriously, but it’s not taken that seriously. It’s not a tradition like it is in Texas.”
He’s brought a little of that tradition to CdM, and it’s one reason the Sea Kings could be CIF champions for the first time in six years.
Born: Oct. 23, 2000
Height: 5 feet 11
Coach: Dan O’Shea
Favorite food: Chicken fried steak
Favorite movie: “Ocean’s Eleven”
Favorite athletic moment: “To be honest, the Alemany game was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had. They were constantly trying to get in my head, their parents were getting in my head, and once I made those two [interceptions], it has to be the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Week in review: The returning All-CIF cornerback shut down Alemany’s DJ Justice — former baseball star David Justice’s son and the Warriors’ top receiver — and made two first-half interceptions to help CdM take control en route to a 48-21 road win in the CIF Southern Section Division 3 semifinals on Nov. 22.
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