Santa Ana High School tailback Robert Lee, who has provided the bulk of the Saints' offense for the past seven weeks, had another big game Friday night, rushing for 206 yards in 27 carries against Esperanza in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference playoffs.
But it was Santa Ana quarterback Richard Fanti who came up with most of the big plays to lead the Saints to a 17-14, come-from-behind victory over the Aztecs in front of 5,000 in Placentia's Bradford Stadium.
Fanti led Santa Ana on two, 80-yard scoring drives in the second half, as the Saints, defending Southern Conference champions, overcame a 14-3 halftime deficit to advance to next week's semifinals against Lynwood.
Fanti, who lost a fumble in the first half and threw an interception early in the third period, scored on a one-yard sneak with 32 seconds remaining to provide Santa Ana (11-1) with the winning margin and touch off a wild celebration on the Saints' side of the field.
Santa Ana had been pinned back at its 11-yard line because of a holding penalty with four minutes to play, but Fanti gained 17 yards on a quarterback draw to get some breathing room.
After a sack and another holding penalty, which forced Santa Ana into a second and 29 from its 33, he passed over the middle to sophomore Sean Price, who caught the ball near midfield and continued to the Aztec 20 for a 47-yard gain with 1:14 left.
Lee then burst up the middle for gains of 12 and 7 yards, and Fanti capped the drive with his touchdown.
Santa Ana began its comeback in the third quarter by driving 80 yards for a touchdown, Lee's four-yard run, to pull to within, 14-10.
Had it not been for an outstanding scramble by Fanti, the Saints never would have been in position to score. From his 40-yard line, Fanti went back to pass, but a heavy rush pushed him all the way back to the 20.
Fanti, however, turned back upfield and avoided several Esperanza defenders on his way to a 14-yard gain to the Aztec 46. He then teamed with Bobby Joyce on a 22-yard pass play to highlight the drive.
Until then, the Aztecs had dominated most of the game. Clint Holt set up Esperanza's first touchdown when he returned the opening kickoff 40 yards to give the Aztecs a first down on the Saint 45-yard line. Six plays later, Mike Miscione, who rushed for 127 yards to set a school single-season record, scored from four yards out and Bryan Aube added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Santa Ana came right back with Lee breaking loose for a 46-yard run that helped set up Julian Rea's 31-yard field goal with 5:40 remaining in the first period.
The Saints forced a punt on the Aztecs' next possession and appeared to have their passing game in gear, as Fanti connected twice with Darrell Bailey for gains of 13 and 9 yards.
But Fanti, on the first play of the second quarter, fumbled a snap from center, and Esperanza's Tom Pruitt recovered at the Aztec 44.
Mike Moneymaker completed a 35-yard pass over the middle to Don Herrick and then combined with Frank Klisura on a 20-yard touchdown pass play with 10:38 left in the first half to give Esperanza a 14-3 lead.
Esperanza had three scoring opportunities in the second half, but Don Mondragon missed field goals of 38 and 31 yards, and Moneymaker was intercepted by Santa Ana linebacker George Tuioti at the Aztec 10-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
Miscione, Orange County's leading rusher, finished the season with 1,959 yards to break Jim Farrell's record of 1,832 yards, set in 1984.
But it will be the Saints and their star tailback, Lee, who has averaged 205 yards a game for the past seven weeks and has 1,625 yards on the season, who advance to the semifinals.