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PREP WEDNESDAY : Santa Margarita, Off to Fast Start, Wastes No Time Attracting Athletes

Times Staff Writer

In August of 1987, Jim Hartigan walked onto the Santa Margarita High School athletic field for the first day of football practice--literally the first day.

He was starting from scratch. New coach at a new school, nothing but freshmen the first year, no senior class until 1991. Hartigan kept his expectations to a minimum. He didn’t feel the turnout would be great the first season.

“We held a camp over the summer and there were a lot of kids that came out,” he said. “Once we told them they had to shave their heads (to play football at Santa Magarita), the numbers dropped drastically.”

But not too drastically. On the first day of practice, 50 kids showed up.

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It was 25% of the school’s enrollment, more than most varsity teams at Orange County high schools have on their rosters. Santa Margarita, the county’s newest Catholic school, was off and running (or passing, depending on the situation).

The Eagles were 10-0 against freshman teams in 1987 and outscored their opponents, 259-36. This season, the sophomore team is 1-1, having lost only to Ontario Christian’s varsity.

In the season opener, playing against the Mountain View sophomore team, the Eagles won, 56-0. In that game they had more points than Mountain View had yards (54).

Success has come quickly, and the athletes coming to the school from the talent-rich Saddleback Valley will almost certainly make the Eagles a football power. However, with success often comes controversy. Coaches from public schools don’t like the fact that Catholic schools play under a different set of rules, especially when those schools are winning.

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The area surrounding the school has been feeding athletic programs with good talent for years. And being a private school with no district boundaries, Santa Margarita can draw its students from anywhere.

The football coaching staff has a winning background. Hartigan was an assistant at Mater Dei, which has one of the county’s most successful football programs. And three of his assistants were also part of the Monarch program, either as players or coaches.

All of which makes the future look bright for the Eagles.

“I would say by the time these kids are seniors, we will have a pretty good football team,” Hartigan said.

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How good? Hartigan, himself, wasn’t sure until the ninth game of last season.

Although the Eagles were undefeated, most of their victories had come against freshman reserve teams. Santa Margarita beat Servite’s B team, 21-0, and Mater Dei’s B team, 40-0.

But on the ninth week of the season, the Eagles played a strong Ramona team.

“They had a couple 260-pound linemen and a running back that was 210,” Hartigan said. “We stopped them inside our 20 on fourth down late in the game and won, 10-6. I knew then that we had some players.”

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Players Hartigan has.

Santa Margarita is located near the eastern edge of Orange County. Go a few miles farther east and you’re in the Cleveland National Forrest. But go a few miles west and you’re on fertile ground for youth athletics.

Mission Viejo, Capistrano Valley and El Toro have been tapping that talent for years. Those three schools have combined for 6 Southern Section football championship in the last 10 years.

Even Trabuco Hills, a school just a few miles north of Santa Margarita, is beginning to flourish in football. The Mustangs made the playoffs last year, only their second as a varsity team, and are 2-0 this season.

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Already Santa Margarita is building a strong athletic base from the area--95% of the students participate in athletics, according to Athletic Director Rich Schaaf. The football program alone has 115 players out of a student body of 585.

“Everywhere you go in this area you see parks and fields for youth sports,” Schaaf said. “Parents get involved, kids get involved. It’s just a great area for youth sports.”

Until now, that talent was locked into a high school by district boundaries. Now they have a choice, which leaves Santa Margarita in a delicate position.

For years, other private schools have been accused of attracting athletes that would have gone to public schools. Although no one has pointed a finger at Santa Margarita, the Eagles may end up guilty by association.

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“A kid grows up in our district, he goes to Mission Viejo,” said Mike Rush, Mission Viejo football coach. “It’s the same at El Toro, Trabuco Hills, Capistrano Valley. Santa Margarita will have to go out and sell their football program.

“It’s hard to say what’s stealing--nobody likes that word. Every coach has to sell his program. I feel we have a strong program at Mission Viejo, but that doesn’t give me the right to go into another area and talk to kids.”

Schaaf, Hartigan and Father Michael Harris, the school’s principal, say they want to put to rest any fears area coaches might have. The last thing they want is for Santa Margarita to get the reputation of recruiting athletes.

“There are some tensions that are indigenous to private and public schools,” Harris said. “Mainly the unlimited geographic area private schools enjoy. We hope to minimize the conflict by working closer with the coaches, athletic directors and principals from the public schools.”

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Schaaf and Hartigan say they want to develop a working relationship with surrounding schools. If for nothing else, just to make scheduling easier.

Santa Margarita already has a home-and-home series set with Trabuco Hills, beginning next season, and Rush is interested in playing the Eagles.

“We want to play these schools,” Schaaf said. “It saves us money. It costs too much to rent a bus by the hour for a game at St. Bernard (in Playa del Rey).”

For two years they have played a free-lance schedule against anyone who had a team and a open date. Santa Margarita plays on the varsity level as part of the Olympic League in every sport except football and wrestling.

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Next year, the Eagles will play football in the league, which is made up of private schools. However, they could soon outgrow it.

“They already have a larger enrollment than us, and we have juniors and seniors,” Orange Lutheran football Coach Bob Dowding said.

In fact, Whittier Christian, with 800 students, is the only school in the league that has a larger enrollment. After the 1989-90 school year, the situation will be evaluated and the Eagles may have to find another league.

What Hartigan fears is that Santa Margarita will go directly from the Olympic League, a Division IX league, to the Angelus League, which is Division I.

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“We’re not ready to compete against teams like Mater Dei or Servite,” Hartigan said.

Yet.

“Give us 6 or 7 years.”

And a few more players.

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