Harry Welch is headed back to the dance, and so are his Eagles.
Friday night in front of a standing-room-only crowd jam packed into Mike Rush Stadium, Santa Margarita Catholic inked its name in the CIF Southern Section Pac-5 Division championship game with a thrilling, come-from-behind, 21-20 victory over host Mission Viejo.
Santa Margarita trailed both early and late in a contest it seemingly controlled throughout behind its mammoth offensive line, which once again produced a pair of 100-yard rushers and 326 rushing yards, all told.
But while the Eagles outgained second-seeded Mission Viejo by 163 yards and collected seven more first downs than the Diablos, Mission Viejo scored 10 points off two Santa Margarita turnovers, and led 17-14 with 10:03 to play after Doug Ruggles scooped up a Johnny Stanton fumble and rumbled with it 85 yards to the house.
One play later, Ruggles corralled a tipped-ball in traffic for an interception which gave Mission Viejo possession at the Eagles' 22. It led to Zach Olsen's second field goal, a 28-yard try with nine minutes left that put the Diablos up by six, 20-14.
"He had two of the biggest plays of his year," Mission Viejo tailback Jahleel Pinner said of Ruggles. "The pick and the fumble return... That gave us life."
But with 6:20 on the clock and 70 yards away from a Dec. 10 title meeting with San Clemente at Angel Stadium, Stanton went to work.
The junior quarterback, who finished with 127 yards in 24 carries, ripped off runs of 18 and 20, while tailback Ryan Wolpin (17 carries, 169 yards) added an 18-yard run of his own with a 10-yard burst up the middle to set the Eagles up at the Mission Viejo one with 1:20 left to play.
Two plays later, Stanton leaped over the pile, finishing off yet another masterful dual-threat performance that included 100 passing yards, and five first down runs of 12 yards or more.
"Johnny Stanton, what can you say about him?" Santa Margarita junior safety Connor O'Brien asked. "He's incredible. He's gonna go places."
John McGrory added the go-ahead extra point and with a minute left and Mission Viejo down to only one timeout, the outcome rested in the hands of O'Brien and his cohorts on defense.
Alex Bridgford (6-of-17 passing, 110 yards) connected with Max Redfield for 20 yards to start Mission Viejo's last-gasp drive, but when Ian Dewert sacked Bridgford at midfield two plays later, the writing was scribbled hastily on the wall.
"I feel fantastic, man, this is a great win," O'Brien said. "I'm just really proud of us. [Mission Viejo] has terrific players, they're a good force, but our defense got it done tonight. We made our stops, we made our plays, and we got the job done."
Bridgford hit D.J. Wilson in stride on a post off play-action for a 63-yard touchdown to open the scoring with two minutes left in the first quarter, and Pinner finished with 104 rushing yards in 19 carries, primarily after tailback Buzzy Yokoyama went down with an injury.
"When Buzz went out, it was a big difficulty," Pinner said. "But I said, 'Give me the ball.' I mean, I was carving them up on the offensive side, but we just couldn't come out with a win."
Down 7-0 midway through the second quarter, Stanton found Cory Mendoza on a corner-out for a 28-yard gain to the Mission Viejo one before Wolpin scored the first of his two touchdowns.
The junior tailback took a direct snap three minutes into the second half and scooted to the edge, where he outran the Diablos' secondary for a 57-yard score that gave Santa Margarita its first lead at 14-7.
"My line was blocking great," Wolpin said. "We got jammed up a little bit, [Mission's] defense was great. They were clogging up the holes, but my line found a way to push it through."
Harris made it 14-10 with a 27-yard field goal five minutes later, setting up Ruggles' heroics, and yet another swing in momentum, a roller-coaster ride not lost on Welch, who will coach Santa Margarita in a title game for the first time.
"You gotta congratulate Mission Viejo, what a terrific team, that was a great game," Welch said. "No one should have lost. [Momentum] is a fickle woman. Sometimes women don't do what us guys want them to do. But she said, 'OK, Harry, one more shot at the dance.' So I'm going to dance with Mo one more time."
In the championship, Santa Margarita (11-2 overall) will face San Clemente (12-1), which made short work of Tesoro, 51-16, Friday night at Orange Coast College.
"It feels great, but we know it's not over yet," Wolpin said. "We have to come in tomorrow and work just as hard as we have in the past on Saturdays, and have a great, focused week. We want to stay as focused, if not more, than we were for this one heading into next week."
Mission Viejo, which beat the Eagles a year ago in the Pac-5 semifinals, finished the season at 10-3.
"We got players all over the field," Pinner said. "For me, to have this as the last game, it's just way too short. I love playing with these guys, I wish I could play one more game."
Kickoff for the Pac-5 championship is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
1 2 3 4 -- T
Santa Margarita 0 7 7 7 -- 21
Mission Viejo 7 0 3 10 -- 20
First Downs 20 13
Rushing Yards 328 155
Passing Yards 100 110
Total Net Yards 428 265
Turnovers 2 2
Penalties-Yards 6-60 0-0
MV -- DJ Wilson 63 pass from Alex Bridgford; Erik Harris kick, 2:21
SM -- Ryan Wolpin 1 run; John McGrory kick, 6:25
SM -- Wolpin 57 run; McGrory kick, 9:19
MV -- Harris 27 field goal, 3:57
MV -- Doug Ruggles 85 fumble return; Harris kick, 10:03
MV -- Harries 28 field goal, 6:35
SM -- Johnny Stanton 1 run; McGrory kick, 1:02
Complete game story and photos to follow. Stay tuned!