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Playoffs bring out the best in Santa Margarita
MISSION VIEJO - Santa Margarita played Friday night like a football team well-versed in the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division playoffs.
The defending Pac-5 champion scored on all four of its second-half possessions to sprint past El Toro and quarterback Conner Manning, 38-13, in a first round game at Trabuco Hills.
Running back Ryan Wolpin rushed for 162 of his 215 yards in the second half to help push the Eagles (9-2) into the second round against a familiar foe: St. Bonaventure of Ventura.
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Santa Margarita defeated top-seeded St. Bonaventura, 35-27, in late September. It was the final game for Eagles quarterback Johnny Stanton, who was later diagnosed with a knee injury.
Wolpin wasn't the only veteran who sparkled in the second half for Santa Margarita, which led, 10-7, at halftime.
Wide receiver River Cracraft caught a 9-yard TD reception from rising sophomore quarterback Kyle Sweet in the third quarter.
The senior also had a 54-yard reception earlier in the third on a key third-and-9 that moved the Eagles to the El Toro 14. On the next play, Sweet found Alec McNiff for a touchdown pass and a 17-7 lead.
Safety RJ Mazolewski helped pace Santa Margarita's defense with an interception at his 5 and a 47-yard return in the middle of the third. The play led to Cracraft's score.
Defensive end Nick Begg added two sacks against El Toro (9-2). Santa Margarita also recovered two fumbles.
The Eagles punctuated their performance by running the ball well in the fourth. Behind a huge offensive line of Riley Sorenson, Ryan Kilander, Frank DiPietro, Dane Crane and sophomore Austin Maihen, Santa Margarita finished with 318 yards rushing. Sweet racked up 65 yards.
Wolpin and Duncan Hume rushed for TDs in the fourth.
And by the end of the night, Santa Margarita's winning formula was clear. The Eagles ran the ball well. They didn't commit a turnover. And they played solid defense.
Manning bounced back from his tough game against Mission Viejo to complete 29 of 43 passes for 322 yards and two scores. The senior was hurt by five dropped passes but finished his stellar career with 9,449 yards, just shy of Matt Barkley's county-record 9,471 for Mater Dei.
El Toro played without standout running back Jacob Furnari, who dislocated an elbow in the regular-season finale at Mission Viejo.
If El Toro had won, Furnari hoped to play with a brace in the quarterfinals.
Santa Margarita led, 10-7, at halftime but the momentum belonged to El Toro thanks to a late defensive stand from its 2, followed by a 98-yard scoring drive.
Santa Margarita led 10-0 when it attempted a trick play on fourth-and-goal from the El Toro 2 coming out of a timeout with 2:49 left in the half. Cracraft was open but the pass from the running back fell short with 2:44 left.
Manning then directed El Toro on a quick 98-yard scoring drive, which he capped with a 29-yard TD pass to Cody White with 46 seconds left. Manning connected with White four times on the drive for 87 yards. The extra-point by Roger Howard cut Santa Margarita's lead to 10-7.
Santa Margarita opened the game with a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that chewed up 5:36. Wolpin capped the drive with 1-yard TD run. The Eagles almost drove for a second Wolpin TD run early in the second but a holding penalty negated a 13-yard TD run. Santa Margarita didn't come away empty as Alex Ury kicked a 39-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead with 10:24 left in second half.
The Eagles defense and special teams then heated up. Begg sacked Manning at the Santa Margarita 40 on a fourth-down attempt with 7:17 left in the second. Santa Margarita's Grant Hilton later recovered a punt that bounced off an El Toro player at the Chargers 16. But the Chargers defense held at the 2, setting the stage for the Manning-led TD drive.
But Santa Margarita recaptured all the momentum in the third period. Of course, the Eagles have shown all season they know how to recover. After losing three standout players to Mission Viejo as transfers and losing Stanton to injury, Santa Margarita is headed to the Pac-5 quarterfinals.
"I don't know if I've been more proud of a team," Santa Margarita coach Harry Welch said of his squad before the game.