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Santa Margarita keeps the surprises coming

The coach is beating prostate cancer. His team faced the biggest deficit in the program’s history — and rallied to win. His starting quarterback twice went down because of an injury, only for the backup to engineer two victories over league rivals.

Nothing life throws at Harry Welch or the Santa Margarita High football team appears to stand a chance of ruining a storybook season for the Eagles.

The big-name coach with the no-name roster continued to work his magic Friday, his team rallying from a 20-0 deficit to pull out a 42-41 overtime victory over Bellflower St. John Bosco when River Cracraft tipped away a two-point conversion pass on the final play.

Santa Margarita’s sixth consecutive triumph set up an unlikely Trinity League title showdown Friday at Saddleback College between the Eagles (7-1, 3-0 in league play) and Anaheim Servite (8-0, 3-0).

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On one side will be a team with no players who have been offered scholarships by Division I colleges. On the other will be a defending state bowl champion with four players offered college scholarships, including two — Servite tight end-defensive end Troy Niklas and defensive back Connor Loftus — coveted by schools across the nation.

“We’re not on anyone’s top-10 talent list,” said Welch, in his first season with the Eagles after wildly successful runs at Canyon Country Canyon and San Juan Capistrano St. Margaret’s. “If you check our roster versus theirs for big-time recruits, it’s not a level playing field.”

That’s not to say the Eagles don’t have stars. Sophomore tailback Ryan Wolpin is a threat to rush for 100 yards every game. Sophomore quarterback Johnny Stanton, filling in for the injured Adam Young for parts of the last two games, is what Welch called “a Pac-10 quarterback in the making.”

And then there is Sean Baker. The senior lineman was excused from practice Wednesday to be with his gravely ill grandfather.

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Yet, when the Eagles went through offensive drills during the latter part of practice, Welch had to do a double take when he saw his left guard back on the line.

“Here was this boy playing football after driving 100 miles, spending time next to his grandfather as he lay dying and he came back and had a chance to get in 45 minutes of football,” Welch said. “He wanted to be there. … It brought tears to my eyes.”

Baker’s grandfather passed away the following day, but Baker played every down during the Eagles’ victory over St. John Bosco. It was another touching moment in a season full of them for Santa Margarita.

“As I ride into the sunset, I was hoping to be in a situation like this, a last ride against the very best,” said Welch, 65. “To be honest with you, it’s coming a little sooner than I thought it would.”

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A new power

The Big VIII League had primarily been the Big II since its debut in 2008, with Centennial Corona and Norco bullying their rivals on the way to league titles.

Now the paradigm has shifted with the rise of Corona Roosevelt, a fourth-year varsity program that seems to be playing the biggest game in school history a lot these days.

“We’re a brand-new school,” Coach Bill Stacy said, “so I tell the players that every week.”

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A former assistant at Corona and Anaheim Esperanza, Stacy attributed his team’s 7-1 start to his coaches and “some real committed kids.” Tailback Joey Legere has rushed for 1,136 yards and senior H-back Sam Boyd had seven catches for 125 yards Thursday in the Mustangs’ 35-14 victory over Riverside North.

If the Mustangs (7-1, 4-1) can beat Riverside King (4-4, 2-3) on Friday, it would set up a title-game showdown between Roosevelt and Centennial (8-0, 5-0) on Nov. 12. The Huskies are the only Big VIII team Roosevelt has not defeated.

ben.bolch@latimes.com


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