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TIGHT EAGLES RULE THE NEST
For everything that changes with the Santa Margarita hockey team – graduating seniors, an expanding league, an ever-growing target on its backs – it remains a picture of consistency in the most important place: the win column.
A year ago, in a three-team varsity division of the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, the Eagles went undefeated through league play but lost to rival JSerra, 3-2, in the league's title game.
This season, the league's varsity level has jumped to nine teams, but the Eagles are once again undefeated in league (10-0) heading into this morning's game against third-place Damien of La Verne at Anaheim Ice.
"The level of hockey here in general has really picked up," said Santa Margarita coach Craig Johnson, a former NHL veteran who spent time with both the Kings and then-Mighty Ducks. "It's good competition and it's a balanced league this year.
"We're sitting at the top right now, but it's not to say that somebody else might not jump us one night and take over or beat us. It's definitely a possibility."
Johnson and the Eagles set their goals not just on winning the league, but returning to the National High School Championships by winning the state title.
Santa Margarita has outscored its opponents, 66-8, while playing a high-tempo, aggressive style. The Eagles have a knack for jumping on opponents early, scoring 33 first-period goals this season.
Champ Baginski, a Fan Development and Youth Hockey Manager for the Ducks and the person who oversees the league, said, "Santa Margarita's team is just unbelievable right now."
Johnson and the players credit much of the team's success to the passion and tight bond among its members. The players have a regular lunchtime "hockey table" at Santa Margarita, and they spend the majority of their free time together on the weekends.
But the real bonding comes during the work they put in on the ice, during games and practices, Eagles defenseman Dylan Skule said.
"You bond through work, I guess," he said. "I think that translates to games and that's why we're successful because we're so tight."
After the stellar start, seven Santa Margarita players were among the 36 selected by the league's coaches for Tuesday night's Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League All-Star Game at the Honda Center.
The team's captain, senior forward Branden Vara, has been selected for the game, along with fellow forwards Brian Desmond and Max Kilkuts, defensemen Jake Rosenbaum, J.J. Carr and Brad Budman and goalie Anthony Lair.
"It's definitely an honor," Vara said. "It's really nice to know that ... they recognize us as working hard all the time."
Orange Lutheran and Servite are each sending five players to the all-star game, and every school in the league will be represented.
The offenses of the two all-star squads will be spearheaded by the league's leading forwards: Corona del Mar's Tyler Maloney on the Black team and Corona-Norco's Jake Hamacher on the White team. Maloney leads the league in goals (20) and points (30).
The night will begin with the junior varsity game at 5:30 p.m., followed by the varsity game at 7:30 p.m. A new addition this year is a battle of the bands competition featuring participants from schools within the league. The winner will be determined by the fans attending the game.
Admission to the event is $5 per person.
"All around it's just such a cool opportunity to play at a professional stadium in front of thousands of fans," Baginski said. The event drew more than 1,000 fans last year, and with the league's growth there is likely to be a bigger turnout this season.
Santa Margarita has risen to match the league's expanding quality this season, and on Tuesday both will be on display.