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Welch Gambles On a Transcendent Moment

With Santa Margarita's 42-37 victory, Harry Welch joins a rare group of coaches who can be called legends.

There is something special about him. He called himself a gambler Friday night after his team won the State Division I Bowl championship, coming back from a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

He gambled with less than two minutes remaining when he told his defense to let the other team score so that the Eagles could get the ball back with enough time to win the game.

Then he gambled on fourth and one, with 16 seconds left, and bet on his offensive line and his quarterback.

Harry Welch knows the game, and he knows players. And, apparently, he knows the odds.

He called the leader of his offensive line, Max Tuerk, and the leader of his team, Johnny Stanton, a couple of thoroughbreds. So he put his confidence and the ball in their hands, and with Stanton's touchdown they delivered a 42-37 victory over San Jose Bellarmine.

Santa Margarita's first Bowl victory is the third for Welch in a span of six years.

With three different schools.

The Eagles scored half of their 42 points in the fourth quarter, and though the action took place on the field, it was on the sidelines where the transcendent moment took place. Welch became something special.

He gained membership into the club that includes the likes of Bob Ladouceur, Jim Blewett, Dick Bruich, Steve Grady, Marijon Ancich, Herb Meyer, Gene Vollnagle and Clare Van Hoorebeke. Every one of them, a high school coaching legend.

Twenty years after he's gone, they'll still remember Harry Welch. What his team did on Friday will be a major reason. It will be one of the defining moments of his legacy.

He is both the offensive and defensive coordinator of his team. He doesn't wear a headset linked to coaches in the press box to get their ideas or the benefit of their bird's-eye view. He doesn't load his schedule with patsies to inflate his record, which is now 244-51-2, which is more than eight wins out of every 10 games.

As legends go, Ladouceur may be in a league of his own. His Concord De La Salle team once won 151 consecutive games. Welch beat Ladouceur in 2006 in the inaugural Division I Bowl. At the time of Canyon Country Canyon's 27-13 upset, De La Salle was ranked No. 1 in the nation and Canyon had two losses.

That was the last game that Welch coached for Canyon, where he once won 46 consecutive games. He won five Southern Section titles there before he left on his own terms, unhappy with the school's administration.

He moved to Coto de Caza to be close to his grandchildren and took over at tiny St. Margaret's Episcopal. He won three section titles at St. Margaret's, where a championship program was already in place. All Welch did was keep winning; three titles came on his watch, but his players at the time said that he had taken the team to another level. St. Margaret's won the state's first Small School Bowl championship in 2008 with a 59-7 victory over Hamilton.

The word "legend" is a bit like "superstar," it tends to get tossed around entirely too much. So, is Welch really a legend? Seriously?

"Yep, there's no question," said Marty Spalding, the line coach at Santa Margarita who also won section titles as an assistant at El Toro, Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo. "He deserves to be considered a high school coaching legend based on what he did at Santa Margarita alone.

"When we started coaching, really coaching, our daily practices were full-blown. We looked at each other and said we won't be able to beat anybody."

Instead, they have almost beaten everybody.

The Eagles were a decade removed from their best years when Welch was chosen ahead of 41 other candidates, including an assistant at the University of Oklahoma and another coach whose reputation reaches from California to Maine, Bob Johnson.

Santa Margarita had gone 3-7 the previous two seasons and failed to win a league game for the first time in school history. The Eagles had gone three seasons without a winning record. That's the challenge that Welch was running toward.

He put his credibility on the line. Success was not a gimme. What if he failed?

But the Eagles were 9-3 last season—one in which Welch had prostate cancer surgery during a bye week—and 13-2 this season.

Next year, they ought to be even better.

Over the past seven seasons, Welch's teams have won six section titles. Incredibly, in that span his teams are 28-1 in the playoffs.

Twenty-eight and one.

Anything over .500 would be considered good.

He is breathing rare air.

Three Bowl wins with three different teams is an accomplishment that will likely never be broken or even matched—certainly not in the same time span as Welch. Not in his lifetime, nor the lifetime of his players, and probably not the lifetimes of their grandchildren.

He is 66 now. He's on the back end of the journey, and so moments like Friday's are special. He says all his championships are special, but make no mistake—this was different. This one was really special.

And Welch isn't going anywhere as long as his health holds out. He still enjoys the coaching, the teaching, the going for it on fourth down, and he said Friday he would stay "as long as the community and administration want me to."

This would be a great way to go out, to pass the torch if he wanted. He doesn't want to. He's happy coaching in one of America's five toughest leagues and playing in the toughest 16-team tournament in the country.

It's hard to win games and championships at this level. 

But Welch isn't afraid of damaging his credibility or risking his legacy. 

He is, after all, a gambler.

Lawrence (Larry) McCook December 17, 2011 at 04:11 PM
We are so very proud that the Santa Margarita Eagles have brought the State Division 1 Championship Trophy home to Rancho Santa Margarita! Congratulations to all of the players, Coach Harry Welch and all of the assistant coaches for all of the hard work and the ultimate success!
Jack Leonard December 17, 2011 at 04:45 PM
Coach Welch takes his teams to winning seasons with such a humble, gracious demeanor! I believe Coach Harry Welch is one of those rare individuals that lives his life surrounded, in all ways, around integrity, trust and respect. The results were apparent during the last few minutes of Friday's vistory. And thank you Cox Communications (channel 3) for bringing it to us live! The City of Rancho Santa Margarita may not have it's own public high school to rally around, but it is long overdue we recognize all that Santa Margarita (private) High School brings to this community. Congratulations coach, staff, administration... and players with a willingness, and an appreciation, to perform as a team!
Brandon Petersen December 17, 2011 at 06:38 PM
Outstanding piece. Spot on. Welch is a legend. RSM, between what the Eagles have done, and what Brian Barnes and crew have done at Tesoro, enjoys, without question, the very highest levels of high school football being played today in America. Wonderful community, great football. Not many places on earth I'd rather be.
Lawrence (Larry) McCook December 18, 2011 at 04:41 PM
Brandon I totally agree! We (RSM football fans) are also proud of the Tesoro football program! They are enjoying great football successes and providing a pipeline of players for the next level! Congratulations to Coach Barnes and all of the fine players! Larry

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