MISSION VIEJO -- With the game over and Santa Margarita ready to go through its post game drill, Johnny Stanton yelled over to Coach Harry Welch.
Stanton held his hands at his waist and gave two thumbs up.
Stanton's magical season continued Friday as he guided the Eagles 70 yards and a one-yard touchdown with 1:02 remaining to beat second-seeded Mission Viejo, 21-20, before a sold-out stadium that seemed to live and die with every play.
In the end, it was Mission Viejo (10-3) that died, the end coming at its 37-yard line with two incomplete passes following Ian Dewert's sack of Alex Bridgford.
Santa Margarita (11-2), in its second season under Welch, is headed to the finals against San Clemente, a 51-16 winner over Tesoro in a clash of second- and third-place teams from the South Coast League. The championship will be played Saturday at Angel Stadium.
Welch, whose team finished second in the Trinity League to Servite, said reaching the Pac-5 finals in his second season meant a lot to him after winning five section championships at Canyon Country Canyon and three with St. Margaret's.
Stanton finished the game rushing 24 times for 115 yards and Ryan Wolpin carried 15 for 157, including touchdowns of one and 51 yards. The latter gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead early in the third quarter.
The South Coast League champion Diablos seized momentum and the lead in the fourth quarter to position themselves for the victory. Doug Ruggles picked up Stanton's fumble and returned it 85 yards for a 17-14 lead with 10:03 remaining, and two plays later intercepted a pass -- deflected by a defensive back first and then an offensive lineman -- at the Santa Margarita 22. Mission reached the eight-yard line behind Jahleel Pinner, who carried 18 times for 102 yards, but he was saddled for a three-yard loss on a third-and-goal pass, and then Bridgford's pass to Max Redfield was incomplete. Zach Olsen kicked his second 28-yard field goal of the second half for a 20-14 lead with 6:35 remaining.
"I was really scared, they had momentum and we were going back and forth with ourselves," said Stanton, who completed eight of 19 passes for 82 yards.
But the defense's big hold gave the Eagles enough time to win the game. They drove 70 yards in 12 plays, the most notable being Stanton's 17-yard gain to get the ball to the 24. After first down at the one, Stanton was stopped by the Mission defense, but he leaped over the pile on second down to tie the score at 20-20 with 1:02 remaining.
John McGrory, who broke the Southern Section record with 106 consecutive PATs before missing in the first round, added the extra point to make it 21-20.
It denied Mission Viejo once again. In 2009, the Diablos lost on their home field to Servite in the semifinals, 19-18, and to Servite in last year's finals. They were the only seeded team remaining in the playoffs. They missed a golden opportunity in the waning seconds of the first half. On third-and-goal at the one, the Diablos fumbled and it was recovered by Sammy Gibbs.
Mission Viejo fumbled twice in the first half, and though the Diablos dodged a bullet on the third play of the game when Chris Frost recovered Bridgford's fumble at the Mission 39 -- Santa Margarita ended up punting.
Mission Viejo nearly played the entire first half in its end. Apart from the 63-yard touchdown pass from Bridgford to DJ Wilson for a 7-0 lead, it wasn't until the last two minutes that the offense ran a play on the Santa Margarita end of the field.
Most of Pinner's yardage came after Buzzy Yokoyama (six carries, 26 yards) was knocked out of the game with an injury. Bridgford completed six of 17 for 107 yards.