ANAHEIM -- For the ninth time in his career, Harry Welch raised a championship trophy over his head. If he could, he would raise Johnny Stanton, too. But Stanton did his own carrying Saturday night at Angel Stadium, carrying the Eagles to the Southern Section Pac-5 title with a 27-13 victory over San Clemente.
Welch has had a lot of these moments -- five with Canyon Country Canyon, three with San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret's -- but when he grabbed the microphone after the game played in front of 14,424, he said "I have never been more proud than I am now."
The last three teams that Santa Margarita (12-2) defeated en route to their first championship since winning back-to-back in 1996-97 had only one loss; third-seeded Long Beach Poly (10-2), second-seeded Mission Viejo (11-2) and San Clemente (12-2).
If Welch loves this team, he'll love next year's too. Only two seniors start on offense, one of them being USC-bound lineman Max Tuerk. But the rest are underclassmen, including Stanton, the dual-threat quarterback who passed for 92 yards and ran for 148. His touchdown pass to River Cracraft with 11 seconds left in the first half gave Santa Margarita a 14-13 lead, and his two-yard score in the third quarter made it 21-13.
Then he engineered the drive of the game, one that covered 89 yards and consumed 9 minutes 56 seconds. It ended with Ryan Wolpin's second score, a three-yard run with 3:09 left in the game. It was at that point that San Clemente got its first possession of the fourth quarter. The Tritons had no more magic in what had been a magical season. Cracraft intercepted a Travis Wilson pass with 1:52 left in the game, and Santa Margarita ran out the clock.
Wilson, the Utah-bound quarterback, completed 12 of 15 passes for 166 yards with an interception. The Tritons, led by Mike Elespuru's 14 carries for 58 yards, managed just 93 yards rushing against the Santa Margarita defense. Wilson was sacked three times, twice by Chris Frost and once by Mack Pierson that happened in the shadow of its end zone.
Twice in the first half Santa Margarita reached deep into Santa Margarita's territory, but after reaching the 1o and five-yard lines, they had to settle for Bret Miller kicking 40- and 30-yard field goals, one of those after Pierson's sack.
"That was really big," Welch said. "They score, with seven points instead of three, it changes the whole game, maybe changes the championship."
Jon Hamro, San Clemente's interim coach who replaced Eric Patton, said those drives were critical.
"Those were huge," Hamro said. "We're used to putting the ball in the end zone down there and we didn't. Great teams will make you pay for those in the end."
And great teams often times have great players.
"We have a never-say-die attitude and Coach Welch drives that into us," Stanton said. "He tells us that we really belong here, and we believe it."