Santa Margarita has displayed all the ingredients of a great team--a powerful offense, a solid defense, and a commitment to repeating as Division V champions.
On Friday against Fountain Valley, the Eagles showed another necessary ingredient--the ability to overcome adversity.
In the last scheduled meeting between the schools--there has been no decision yet to renew the contract that ran four years--second-ranked Santa Margarita overcame two second-half fumbles that coughed up a 10-point first-half lead and rallied to defeat seventh-ranked Fountain Valley, 27-21, before an estimated crowd of 6,000 at Huntington Beach High.
The Eagles (5-0) won the battle of unbeaten teams by scoring 10 fourth-quarter points on a safety--Fountain Valley punter Jeff Frey was tackled in the end zone--and Santa Margarita quarterback Carson Palmer fired a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Beckner for the winning score with 7:19 to play. Santa Margarita added a two-point conversion on a pass from Palmer to Matt Brooks.
Palmer threw for 257 yards, completing 14 of 19 passes. Receiver John Minardi caught nine passes for a school single-game record 242 yards.
But it was all the Eagles could do to recover from two third-quarter fumbles by running back Bryant Wolfsberger, who rushed for 116 yards in 21 carries.
The first fumble came after Santa Margarita stopped Fountain Valley (4-1) on the Eagles' four-yard line.
Wolfsberger was stripped at the two, the Barons pounced on the ball, and three plays later Fountain Valley quarterback Jason Morris swept around the right end from a yard out.
On the Eagles next possession, Wolfsberger lost the ball on the Santa Margarita 45. Linebacker Nick Heinle scooped it up and outraced the Eagles for the touchdown that gave Fountain Valley the lead, 21-17.
Santa Margarita's top priority was to stop explosive Fountain Valley back John Sanders, whose 13 touchdowns tied him for second in the county. And Sanders showed why, bolting 61 yards for a touchdown on his third carry to give the Barons a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
But that was all Fountain Valley could get against the Santa Margarita defense in the first half, and it gave the Eagles' offense a chance to come alive.
Because of a stress fracture in his right foot, and the fact Santa Margarita had gotten ahead of teams so quickly the first unit was off the field after the first half, Palmer had played only three quarters (and 19 snaps) in his team's first four games. It figured that at some point, the rust had to show.
It didn't in the first half, when Palmer passed for 133 yards and a touchdown.
After Nick Sparks got the Eagles on the scoreboard with a 31-yard field goal, the Palmer-to-Minardi combination got Santa Margarita the lead.
On a second and 10 from the Barons 32, Palmer dropped back to throw and zipped the ball to Minardi at the 15, and he raced into the end zone.