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By Zach Cavanagh

John Donnelly. Photo: Dana Hills High School

Dana Hills assistant football coach John Donnelly died on Thursday, Sept. 3, after a three-month fight with cancer, the team and school announced. Donnelly, a 55-year-old Dana Point resident, was also a special education teacher at Dana Hills High School.

“It is with great sadness that we share the news of the passing of John Donnelly this afternoon,” the Dolphins football team said on social media. “He was a beloved teacher, coach and a long-standing member of the Orange County football community. He will be greatly missed.”

Donnelly’s family is holding a celebration of life on Sept. 26 at the Dana Point Yacht Club from 2-7 p.m. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, those interested need to RSVP with Lynn Perez via a private message on Facebook by Sept. 17.

Donnelly is survived by his three children, Brett, Brooke and Zach; his mother, Barbara Martinez; his sister, Lynn Perez; and his girlfriend, Carrie Angelakis.

“Coach Donnelly was a man of God that brought excellence out of every football player and student he coached and taught,” Dolphins co-head coach Phil Skinner said. “God rest his beautiful soul. I was blessed to be his friend for over 20 years.”

Dana Hills assistant football coach and special education teacher John Donnelly died on Thursday, Sept. 3. Donnelly had also coached at San Juan Hills and San Clemente High Schools. Photo: Dana Hills High School

Donnelly had been a football coach up and down coastal Orange County, including the three public high schools of the South County tri-city area: Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente.

Donnelly was first hired at Dana Hills in 1997 by former Dolphins coach Scott Orloff. Donnelly coached at Dana Hills for well over a decade, continuing as a defensive coordinator for former Dana Hills coach Brent Melbon.

Donnelly later became a defensive line coach at San Clemente High School in 2014 and 2015. Those Triton teams both won Sea View League championships and advanced to CIF-SS Finals. San Clemente lost both finals before winning its first CIF-SS title in 2016.

Donnelly came back to Dana Hills as an assistant coach in 2016 before joining the San Juan Hills High School coaching staff the past two seasons. Donnelly was a varsity linebackers coach for the Stallions in 2018 and a San Juan Hills freshman assistant coach last season.

“You will be missed, my friend,” San Juan Hills coach Rob Frith wrote on Twitter. “I am honored to have coached with you. Your passion, enthusiasm and love for coaching radiated onto the players you influenced in a positive way.”

Donnelly was set to rejoin the Dana Hills coaching staff this season. However, Donnelly learned of his cancer diagnosis in early June, and the disease took his life just three months later.

As a coach in Orange County, Donnelly was the head coach at his alma mater, Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach, for three seasons from 1993-95. Donnelly was also an assistant coach at Edison High School in Huntington Beach when the Chargers won a CIF-SS title in 2012.

Donnelly played football at Ocean View and at Golden West College in Huntington Beach. Donnelly later played NAIA football at Graceland University in Iowa, where he was an all-conference player in 1988.


Zach Cavanagh
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a multiple California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at

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