MISSION VIEJO – If anyone ever doubted Harry Welch's will, he showed it on his team's first possession Friday against Mater Dei. Facing a fourth-and-one situation at its own 39-yard line, Santa Margarita's offense went for it.
And made it.
It was a statement, a bold one en route to a 17-7 Trinity League victory that gave the resurgent Eagles second place in league. Just a season ago, Santa Margarita (8-2, 4-1) failed to win a league game for the first time in school history, and it had only one league victory the past two seasons.
And then it hired Welch, who won eight Southern Section titles and two state bowl championships with Canyon Country Canyon and St. Margaret's. His simple offense and defense proved successful against all but one team in the Southern Section's toughest league. That one team was Servite (10-0, 5-0), the defending Pac-5 and Division II Bowl champion that has won 21 in a row -- and the Eagles were within a touchdown of that team last week.
On that key fourth-and-one -- the Eagles hadn't even gotten a first down yet -- quarterback Adam Young's second effort on a sneak pushed forward enough to move the chains.
“God gave us four downs, who am I to say only use three,” Welch asked rhetorically. “He says you have four, let's go with four.”
A holding penalty on the next play saddled Santa Margarita with a first and 25, but Young passed 23 yards to River Cracraft, and then guided the Eagles down the field before Young scored from nine yards.
“He has tremendous confidence in his offense,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said of Welch, who was facing the legendary OC coach for the first time. “He's on a roll, he's living the dream, and he must have felt that's what he could do.”
It was the start of a great half for Santa Margarita, which knocked Mater Dei receiver Victor Blackwell out of the game with a disclocated shoulder in the first quarter. It was the same shoulder injury that caused Blackwell to miss games earlier this season.
Mater Dei (6-4, 3-2), which finished third in the league, wasn't without chances. It missed field goals of 43 and 23 yards, and at the 14, USC-bound quarterback Max Wittek's pass to Sedric Hill was intercepted by Johnny Stanton in the end zone with 2:38 left in the first half.
Santa Margarita then drove 80 yards in four plays: Cory Thomson ran for 10, Marco Fragnito caught a pass for 30, Reiley Higgins ran for 15, a pass interference added 15, and Thomson skipped past a blitz and scored from 12 yards with 1:14 on the clock.
That alone would have constituted a stellar 24 minutes, but a three-and-out, and a 30-yard punt return by Higgins gave the Eagles the possession at the Mater Dei 22 with 40 seconds remaining. Young kicked a 39-yard field goal as time expired on the half for a 17-0 lead.
The fourth down gamble on the first drive wasn't the only time Welch's wards went for it. Early in the third quarter from its own 32, Santa Margarita went for it and Ryan Wolpin was thrown for a two-yard loss by Glen Raphael; four plays later, Corbin Anderson scored from the two to cut the Mater Dei deficit to 17-7.
And with 3:34 left in the game at their own 29, after Mater Dei had exhausted its last timeout to save the clock, Santa Margarita again gambled. Wolpin needed one yard but got nine.
“I love it – he trusts us,” said Young, who completed 10 of 13 passes for 127 yards, and also carried 15 times for 40 of the Eagles' 102 rushing yards. “He believes in us. We definitely believe in ourselves a lot more. We've come together as a team.”
“I do trust them,” Welch said. “I believe in them and I'm willing to risk that if we don't make it we can still be successful in the ball game.
Corbin rushed 14 times for 60 yards for Mater Dei, and Wittek completed 13 of 24 for 169 yards against a physical Santa Margarita defense.
Thomson carried 11 times for 53 yards. “We feel we have so much trust in our offensive line that we can get that couple of extra yards,” Thompson said of his blockers, junior Max Tuerk, junior Cole Luther, senior Kyle McPherson, senior Nicky Peterson and sophomore Riley Sorenson.
The coach is confident, the players are confident, and Santa Margarita is in the playoffs for the first time since 2006. “You're going,”Welch told them afterward, “because you deserve it.”