Johnny Stanton did it again. The junior quarterback with the seemingly magical season once again led Santa Margarita to a victory, but not just any victory.
In front of 14,424 at Angel Stadium, Stanton ran and passed the Eagles to their first football championship since winning back-to-back titles in 1996-97 with a 27-13 victory over San Clemente.
Stanton rushed for 148 yards and one touchdown and passed for 92 and another to give Santa Margarita the Southern Section Pac-5 championship Saturday night. The Eagles (12-2) should be in the conversation Sunday when CIF commissioners choose which teams will play in State Bowl games.
The victory was the third in a row against an opponent that had lost only one game to a Southern Section team prior to losing to the Eagles. Santa Margarita defeated third-seeded Long Beach Poly (10-2), second-seeded Mission Viejo (10-3) and San Clemente (12-2); one of Mission's losses was to the No. 1 team in the nation.
“Tonight we turned it over to Johnny Stanton and said, ‘Johnny, take us to a championship,’” said Santa Margarita coach Harry Welch, who won five section titles at Canyon Country Canyon and three at St. Margaret’s. “And boy, from the sideline, it seemed he was a man. They knew he was going to carry the ball and had to stop him and they couldn’t do it.”
Ryan Wolpin complemented Stanton with 20 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns, his 27th and school record-tying 28th of the year.
But it wasn’t all about offense, which has nine underclassmen in the starting lineup.
As they did last week in their 21-20 victory over Mission Viejo, the Eagles' defense played a huge role by forcing their opponent to kick a field goal despite driving deep into Santa Margarita territory.
On Saturday, it happened twice.
Santa Margarita’s defense came through with big stands in the first half as San Clemente reached the 10, and then the five-yard line, and had to settle for field goals of 40 and 30 yards by Bret Miller. The play that killed San Clemente at the five-yard line was Mack Pierson’s sack of quarterback Travis Wilson.
“Our defense really stepped up, and San Clemente has such an explosive offense it was really important to hold them to those two field goals,” said Stanton, who completed nine of 14 passes and rushed 25 times.
Said Wilson: “It was definitely a big deal when we couldn’t capitalize on that. They were pretty tough.“
Sandwiched in-between those field goals was a 78-yard drive that ended with Wolpin’s 33-yard scoring run to give Santa Margarita a 7-3 lead.
The Eagles couldn’t keep San Clemente out of the end zone for the entire half, though. The Tritons scored on their third straight possession with Mike Elespuru taking it in from three yards for a 13-7 lead.
Santa Margarita answered with a 10-play, 89-yard drive that ended with Stanton throwing eight yards to River Cracraft in the end zone with 11 seconds left in the half. John McGrory kicked the extra point for a 14-13 lead.
Santa Margarita opened the second half with another scoring drive, 77 yards that took more than seven minutes off the clock. The Eagles converted two fourth-down plays on the drive, and Stanton dived over the top of the line from two yards for a 21-13 lead with 4:43 left in the third quarter.
The next time Santa Margarita got the ball, they held it for 9:56 and Wolpin scored from three yards. for consecutive point-after touchdown kicks, missed for only the second time this season. Still, the Eagles had a 27-13 lead with 3:09 left, and San Clemente didn’t have enough time or magic.
San Clemente was in the finals for the second time in school history, the first since losing in 1978.
“When you only get a couple of possessions in a half, you have to make them count,” San Clemente coach Jon Hamro said. “It’s the little things that make a difference.”
Where Do Eagles Go From Here?
Westlake (14-0), ranked No. 4 nationally, beat neighboring Oaks Christian in the Northern Division title game on Friday, and the Warriors will likely represent Southern California in the Open Division game of the CIF State Championship Bowl Games on Saturday, Dec. 17, at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
That leaves Santa Margarita as a viable candidate -- along with Vista Murrieta , which beat undefeated Corona Centennial, 35-28 in the Inland Division final -- to represent the area in the Division 1 bowl game on Friday, Dec. 16, also at the Home Depot Center.
Vista Murrieta is undefeated on the field but had to forfeit four victories, and that may be reason enough for those section commissioners selecting the Southern California representatives to go with the Pac-5 champion Eagles, despite their two losses. Other options are Bakersfield (13-0) from the Central Section, and Poway (12-0-1) from the San Diego Section.
Pairings for the Dec. 16 and 17 state bowl games are expected to be announced Sunday at 3 p.m.