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Santa Margarita happy with its Sweet surprise
RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — Quarterback Johnny Stanton wears size 14 shoes, a microcosm of the enormous void the senior captain initially left at Santa Margarita after suffering a season-ending knee injury in September.
The defending state and section champion Eagles were 5-0 at the time, ranked No. 1 in the county. Some pundits went so far as to tab them the best team in the nation. Now their best player was out with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Offensive lineman Dane Crane teared up when he heard the news. Receiver River Cracraft called the loss devastating. Coach Harry Welch said it affected the entire Santa Margarita community.
"It was very traumatic when Johnny Stanton went down," Welch said.
It was also time for Kyle Sweet to get a new pair of shoes.
Welch soon tabbed the Eagles' sophomore receiver to be the starting quarterback, ordering Sweet a pair of Under Armour high-top cleats, popularized by Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and designed to protect the ankles.
Sweet, in turn, has helped protect Santa Margarita's season, which continues Friday in a CIF-SS Pac-5 Division second-round meeting with top-seeded St. Bonaventure. The two teams previously met the night Stanton was injured, a 35-27 Eagles victory on Sept. 21.
Sweet, who caught a touchdown that night, is as unassuming now in replacing Stanton as he was receiving for him.
"Kyle has a very interesting personality," Welch said. "He never seems to panic. He's very, very cool under pressure. I knew there was something very special about him. Did I know he would handle it as well as he has? There's no way I could have known that until he stepped into the heat."
But Welch had his suspicions. The summer before Sweet's freshman season, Welch tried out the life-long quarterback at receiver, playing a hunch after Sweet's older brother, Logan, now a walk-on at UCLA, starred for Welch at receiver in 2010. Sweet began last fall as the freshman team quarterback and ended it as a receiver on the varsity team, starting five games on the upper level, including the state title game.
Sweet figured he would compete for the starting quarterback job next fall after Stanton graduated. When his father, Eric, the Eagles' junior varsity coach, relayed Stanton's diagnosis and told him to be ready to switch back to quarterback, Sweet shrugged.
"I think he was oblivious to the whole thing," Eric said. "It could eat some kids alive to have to replace Johnny Stanton."
That responsibility never fell solely on Sweet, thanks to a strong supporting cast. Stanton and Crane have served as his personal mentors, tailback Ryan Wolpin and defensive back Connor O'Brien remained the locker room leaders, and many others surfaced as shining examples.
"It's definitely big shoes to fill," Sweet said. "But if I make a mistake, I feel like I have all the support in the world."
In Santa Margarita's first game, post-Stanton, Sweet started the second half in place of junior Josh Canty, who was battling an injured Achilles' tendon, and guided the offense on two touchdown drives in a victory against Servite. The starting job was officially his.
After Sweet and the Eagles offense struggled in a 24-7 loss to Mater Dei, they rebounded with a 17-14 victory against Orange Lutheran. Sweet demonstrated an accurate arm and fleet feet, completing 10 of 12 passes and rushing for 56 yards. Stanton began to notice something more.
"He's become a much better leader," Stanton said.
After splitting their final two regular season games, the Eagles faced another crisis while preparing for their first-round playoff game against El Toro: Sweet came away from a blowout loss to St. John Bosco of Bellflower badly hobbled with a high ankle sprain.
"I thought, this team has been through so much, maybe that's it," Welch said. "Maybe the air has come out of the balloon and it's time to move on."
Sweet didn't even attempt to run at full speed until game time, but once he started he didn't stop. He rushed for 65 yards and threw for a season-best 208 yards and two touchdowns as the Eagles rolled, 38-13.
"It was Johnny-esque," Welch said. "We don't ask him to be Johnny Stanton. There's only one Johnny Stanton. He's been Kyle Sweet and we're finding out that's pretty good."
Maybe it's the shoes.
At the conclusion of Monday's practice, Welch approached Sweet with a sly grin and, as he is wont to do, chided him about his "slippers." Sweet laughed, his size 11 1/2 shoes fitting him perfectly.