Santa Margarita grinds along without Stanton
OCT 05, 2012 11:44p ET
Looking to spur a big play to pull even against the top-ranked team in both the Southern Section, and by most accounts, in the entire state of California, Servite quarterback Travis Waller looked for favorite target Tony Brown on a route along the right sideline.
His pass appeared to be heading towards Brown's outstretched arms when senior Eagles safety and University of Washington commit Connor O'Brien drilled into the vulnerable receiver, jarring the ball loose for an incomplete pass and bringing players and fans alike to their feet along the Santa Margarita sideline.
Among those with the natural reflex to leap up after such a big play defensively was injured senior quarterback Johnny Stanton, who last Friday underwent knee surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered two weeks ago in a win over St. Bonaventure.
"My right leg's able to carry the load," Stanton said, though don't expect any more acrobatics along his team's sidelines.
"It's like a real significant slam dunk in basketball, where both teams are playing good defense, and then the other teams just kind of in-your-face just tomahawk slams," said Eagles coach Harry Welch, who admitted he was talking to someone on the sideline during O'Brien's hit.
The Friars' momentum was zapped after that play, and they never threatened for the rest of the game as they were shut out for the third time this season. Santa Margarita (6-0, 1-0 Trinity League) tallied two more touchdowns over a seven and a half minute stretch of play and went on to defeat Servite (2-4, 0-1) 21-0. It was their first win over the Friars since 2004 and a far cry from last year's 43-42 Friars win on a two-point conversion in overtime.
There's no way for a quarterback to immediately step in and perform at the level of Johnny Stanton, a dual threat University of Nebraska commit who led the Eagles to a State Championship and bowl game victory last year. Stanton, who draws comparisons to Tim Tebow – and also received a get well soon card from the New York Jets quarterback after his injury – has been the most exciting player in the entirety of the CIF Southern Section for the last two years and the most alluring player on a team that looks to send at least eight players to Football Bowl Subdivision universities next year.
But junior Josh Canty and sophomore Kyle Sweet have to start somewhere, and on Friday it was against the seven-time defending Trinity League champions.
Fortunately, they had the wisdom of Johnny Stanton to rely on for guidance on the Eagles' sidelines.
"It turned out to be not so bad. I felt like a fan out there," Stanton said. "I tried to be as involved as I could, but I was limited by having to sit down for pretty much all of the game."
"I was able to talk to a couple guys when they came over, and I tried to calm down Josh and Kyle when they got nervous. I thought they did a great job. I didn't feel like they needed me. It's a good thing that I don't feel very important anymore – and I say that in a way that I'm not as important to the team, on the field. And it's a good think. That's what I was hoping for."
Canty, who had the lone game experience at quarterback of the two – he had attempted two career passes, connecting on one for a net total of one yard before Friday's win – started the game and suffered through some growing pains in the first quarter. He was intercepted on the second pass he threw and finished 5-of-8 for 30 yards and two interceptions, leading the team to a precarious 7-0 halftime lead.
Sweet appeared to settle into a more consistent groove and possessed a rhythm similar to Stanton's. He finished 6-of-7 for 38 yards and 11 runs for 53 yards, one of which was a two yard dive into the end zone that capped off a run-heavy drive that also featured an effective ground effort from seniors Ryan Wolpin and R.J. Mazolewski.
"The offense is going to get a whole lot better," Welch said. "You try two new quarterbacks after Johnny Stanton, who's been the man for 20 consecutive games, and just to throw someone in there in the middle of the season is very, very difficult. I was very proud of Josh Canty, and I was very proud of Kyle Sweet. Both of them are going to get a whole lot better. They were thrown into the fire at the beginning of the Trinity League. That's pretty tough. Real tough."
Not that Welch particularly cared for his team's three first half turnovers.
"I thought we were up in Utah, and we were the Trojans for a little while."
When Santa Margarita's ground game was working, they were putting points on the board. Wolpin, who missed three days of school earlier this week because of the flu, was able to find the outside in the second half before finishing with two touchdowns and 71 yards on 15 carries. He now has 13 rushing touchdowns on the season.
"You just have to be in a completely different mindset, and mind over matter," said Wolpin, who Welch estimated was at about 60% because of his illness. "You just think that you're totally fine, and I think that's what I did tonight. I felt pretty good through the whole game."
He also discussed the seniors' leadership and understanding that a collective effort would be able to lift the team in the absence of its star quarterback.
"All the major seniors really had that moment, as a team. We all looked at each other. We had little meetings in the locker room, just talking about it. It was definitely a big time for us, so we all knew that it was time for us to really step it up," said Wolpin.
Though Sweet isn't a senior, his performance gives Welch and the Eagles room for some optimism that they'll eventually be able to develop an athletic and agile signal caller out of a similar vein as Stanton.
"He's faster than Johnny. He has a very, very quick release – maybe quicker than Johnny's," Welch said. "He has some special potential. But he's not 6'3, 220."
Sweet does, however, have the confidence of a senior leader who continues to make a motivational impact on the sidelines while pushing for his younger quarterbacks to continue to guide the Eagles to an unblemished record.
Friday's game ended up developing the script that will have to become commonplace should the Eagles look to approach the success they experienced last season. A powerful running game, a stifling defense, and senior leadership all overcoming the loss of one important player should be an effective recipe under the humble and focused Harry Welch, who has never had a problem motivating his student-athletes.
"I thought we responded," Welch said. "And after we did that, I don't remember messing up too much. In hindsight, I think we had three turnovers, which is typical of a brand new quarterback trying to take over. But that's not going to keep happening. They're good kids."
Having defeated Servite, Santa Margarita will have a week to prepare for a more experienced Mater Dei (5-1, 1-0) team. Though the absence of Stanton may drop the Eagles down a few pegs in regional and national rankings, this is still a 6-0 team riding a 12-game winning streak.
"Johnny being gone, everybody had to step up," Wolpin said. "All the seniors, it really took a toll on us. We all knew what we had to do, and I think we did it pretty well. We practiced hard all week and everything started coming together. It was a little sloppy, but I think we're happy with the outcome."
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