Johnny Stanton is one of the main reasons Santa Margarita Catholic is ranked the No. 1 prep football team in the nation by some publications, but if the Eagles are going to stay atop the rankings, it looks like someone else must lead the way.
Stanton led the Eagles to a 35-27 victory Friday over Ventura St. Bonaventure in a matchup of teams ranked in the top 10 in the state, but it didn't come without a price. Stanton suffered a season-ending knee injury.
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Stanton first showed a limp on a first quarter touchdown drive after an 18-yard run, and continued to play. He made big passes and big runs—perhaps none bigger than when he escaped being sacked for a safety and instead gained 12 yards for a first down in the fourth quarter.
It was obvious he was favoring his left knee, and it was perhaps most notable on a 12-yard gain midway through the fourth. But Stanton was gimpy on handoffs to Ryan Wolpin as well. After the 12-yard run at midfield Coach Harry Welch determined Stanton was done carrying the ball for the night.
When Stanton had an MRI on Saturday it was discovered that he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Welch said surgery will take place within the week.
"High school football just lost one of their great young men in America," Welch said Saturday night. "I have every confidence in the world he'll bounce back and have an amazing career at the University of Nebraska."
Stanton has committed to the Cornhuskers, where his dual threat as a runner and passer should serve him well.
In the victory over St. Bonaventure, he ran 15 times for 97 yards and a score, and completed seven of 11 passes for 133 yards and two scores.
Stanton was asked afterward about his leg.
"I'm fine," he said. "I'll get some ice on it and I'll be back for Servite."
He did ask for the interview to be short, but he also remained on the field and conducted at least one more interview and accommodated a friend who wanted a photo taken.
Welch said he asked Stanton about the limp in the first quarter, and his tough team captain told him it was just a Charley horse. Welch said neither he nor anyone else—including Stanton—was exactly sure when the tear occurred.
"He said it was on a bootleg pass where he planted his foot and came across his body," Welch said. "It's the darnedest thing. I've had players over the past 40 years who are doing gentle agility drills and they rupture an ACL."
Stanton may have made the play of the game in the fourth quarter. Holding a 28-21 lead at his 7-yard line on third-and-9, he was nearly sacked in the end zone for a safety, but turned it into a 12-yard gain for a first down.
"Johnny probably feels worse for our team," Welch said. "He thinks more of others than about himself. He's a selfless young man."
Santa Margarita, ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN, is the defending Southern Section Pac-5 champion and Division I Bowl champion. It begins play in the Trinity League on Oct. 5 after a bye week. The Eagles face Servite, which has won or shared seven consecutive league titles. Although Servite (1-3) has suffered through a rebuilding season thus far, the Friars are typically one of the most physical teams in the region.
The following week, Santa Margarita plays unbeaten Mater Dei, which is ranked No. 14 in the state. The season concludes against St. John Bosco, which is ranked No. 15 in the state. Five of the six teams in the Trinity League are unbeaten in nonleague games.
It could be that Stanton's replacement, junior Josh Canty (5-11, 178) will have to guide the Eagles through what many consider one of the toughest leagues in America.
"The weight of the team will be on his shoulders," Welch said. "All eyes will be on Josh."
Stanton had completed 59 of 88 passes for 949 yards with 11 touchdowns this season while rushing for 386 yards on 47 carries, an 8.2 average, and eight touchdowns.
He is the Eagles all-time total offense leader with 5,558 yards—surpassing Carson Palmer—and fourth on the school's career passing yardage list with 3,576 yards.
Stanton rushed for 1,528 yards in 2011 and scored 25 touchdowns to become the first Santa Margarita quarterback to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season as he earned All-Trinity League Most Valuable Player, All-CIF-SS Offensive Player of the Year, and All-State honors.
Over the summer he participated in the ESPNHS Elite 11 Quarterback Competition and finished the camp as one of the country's top ranked quarterbacks.