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Top Stories of 2012: No. 8—Football's Follies

After the great success in 2011 by local teams, it looked like 2012 would be even bigger. Then it all fell apart.

The year held virtually no love for local football teams even though it appeared it might be a (national) banner year.

After winning the Southern Section Pac-5 title and State Division I Bowl championship in 2011, Santa Margarita Catholic was poised to repeat that success. But the breakdown of the program at the end of last season—three coaches getting busted for drug-related offenses—continued in 2012 albeit on a different route.

Coach Harry Welch learned in late January the Orange County District Attorney's office would not file charges against him for an incident with a player who was allegedly pushed or shoved against a wall by the successful coach. Though that's good news, the very association that he may have assaulted one of his players certainly dulled the legacy that reached its zenith with his third Bowl Championship (with three different teams) in six years. In February, after paid administrative leave, Welch was reinstated by the school, but his job title was switched from special assistant to the president to, simply, football coach.

Two of the program's outstanding players, receiver Sean Modster and running back Alex Suchesk, transferred to Mission Viejo before the season and offensive lineman Erik Bunte joined them after a few games. Despite all that, the Eagles were still loaded. Behind quarterback Johnny Stanton, running back Ryan Wolpin and two-way standouts Connor O'Brien and River Cracraft, SMCHS and its players set scoring records in victories in its first four games.

The next week, Stanton (who will continue his career at Nebraska) led Santa Margarita—ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN—to a victory over Ventura St. Bonaventure, but the dual-threat quarterback tore up his knee and didn't play another game. He was named National Player of the Month for September.

After winning five in a row, the Eagles lost three of their next seven games, including a 27-21 overtime setback to top-seeded St. Bonaventure in the second round of the playoffs.

With Santa Margarita reeling from the losses of Suchesk, Modster and Stanton—and Wolpin took a turn on the sideline as well—Mission Viejo became a favorite to win the championship behind receiver/safety Max Redfield and defensive lineman Garrett Marino. The second-seeded Diablos were undefeated when they were stunned by Long Beach Poly, 21-16, in the second round of the playoffs. Poly, which had lost three of its first four games of the season, including 56-0 to Harbor City Narbonne, went on to win the Pac-5 title.

After six weeks of football, schools fed by Rancho Santa Margarita athletes were ranked 1-2-3 in the Orange County Top 10.

Tesoro, led offensively by running back Nate Tago, won its first six games, then lost three in a row—to El Toro, 41-31; to Mission Viejo, 55-32; and to San Clemente, 29-21. After the loss to San Clemente, Coach Brian Barnes—his team ranked 15th in the state prior to giving up three touchdowns in the final four minutes—was removed from his position and replaced by defensive coordinator John Hall. Barnes, 47-23 in six seasons as coach, had transitioned the team successfully from Division IX to Division I, reaching the Pac-5 finals in 2008 and semifinals in 2011. The in-season release shocked the football community.

But if losing a coach like Barnes needed some perspective, you only need look at Trabuco Hills. It was hit by injuries before the season began, but its worst news came a month before an emotional 17-14 victory over Dana Hills to begin the season. On July 25, four weeks before the win against Dana Hills, line coach Eric McKinney died without warning. He was 46, and left behind three children, including sophomore fullback/linebacker Kevin, and freshman three-sport standout Carly.

The Mustangs were expected to finish last in the South Coast League, which was ranked by Maxpreps as the fifth-best league in the nation. They finished in a three-way tie for third place, the only local team to end the year with a victory after suffering the biggest loss of all.

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