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ORANGE COUNTY PREP FOOTBALL

Reaching for the Top

Thompson Helps Santa Margarita Take Its Place Among County's Best

November 10, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He might not immediately come to mind when considering Orange County's best high school football player, but some say Tyler Thompson is an unheralded jewel, a gem that shines on offense, defense and special teams for Santa Margarita.

"Tyler's the heartbeat of our team," Santa Margarita Coach Jim Hartigan said. "When he plays well, we play well. When I ask him to step up, everyone else follows. He's the pulse of our football team."

Thompson, a 5-foot-11, 210-pound jackhammer, stepped up last week when Santa Margarita forged a 21-14 upset of Mater Dei, which was ranked No. 1 in the county. From his linebacker position, he forced a fumble that led to his rushing touchdown and had a team-high six tackles. He also caught a touchdown pass to help provide a rite-of-passage victory for a program in its second year of Division I competition.

"It made a statement that we can play Division I football," Thompson said. "We may not win all the time, but we can win, and we prepare to win, and it showed that we are capable of playing the best and beating the best. That's not something that we showed last year."

Santa Margarita, which dropped out of the Orange County Sportswriters' poll after five weeks, is back where it began the season, ranked sixth. The Eagles are seventh in the Southern Section Division I rankings. With the loss, Mater Dei dropped to third in the county and fourth in Division I.

"We respected him going into the football game and we have the utmost respect for him coming out of the football game," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said of Thompson. "He doesn't do anything fancy on offense, but he basically is their offense."

Thompson ground out the yardage and the clock against Mater Dei, carrying 31 times for 92 yards. In Santa Margarita's other Serra League victory, over Bellflower St. John Bosco, he carried 32 times for 203 yards.

In nine games, Thompson has rushed for 1,024 yards, caught 12 passes for 334 yards--a 27.8 average--and scored 13 touchdowns. He is also averaging 34.8 yards per kickoff return.

The Eagles can win the Serra League title outright with a victory over Servite tonight at Cal State Fullerton. It would be the Eagles' first league title since winning the Sea View in 1997 en route to a 14-0 season.

"You have to play against the best to be the best," said Thompson, whose brother, Garrett, was a defensive back for Santa Margarita and graduated in 1999.

"When we won the Division V title with Carson [Palmer] and [John] Minardi, we were really good, but because we were Division V, people still questioned whether we were the best team around.

"I would much rather play in Division I. People know then and there whether you're for real or not, and whether you can play at the highest level."

Hartigan says there is little doubt Thompson can play with the best, and puts him in the same category as standout alums Minardi, Billy Newman and the Finneran twins, Brad and Brian.

Brian Finneran is an Atlanta Falcon. Minardi, a junior, is the leading receiver at Colorado. Newman, a junior, leads Washington State in tackles, interceptions and fumble recoveries.

"He's that kind of player," Hartigan said. "He's contributing just as much as those guys when they were here."

Montana, Colorado State, Washington State and Utah have shown recruiting interest in Thompson. A three-year starter, he has shown sophomore Ashton White the ropes at running back and carried the young receiving corps until they became more comfortable in their varsity surroundings.

"He gives us so much versatility," Hartigan said. "I think he helped the offensive line blossom--he made some runs early that made them look good--and I think the rest of the guys are now starting to catch up."

Thompson's power impressed Rollinson: "We hit him a couple times, maybe we should have wrapped better, but he went right through the tackle and dragged our defensive backs around a few times."

With 27 career touchdowns--four receiving, two fumble returns and one kickoff return among them--Thompson has been named a team MVP 17 times in 35 varsity games. At season's end, he will be Santa Margarita's first player to earn four varsity letters.

"He's a playmaker," Rollinson said. "He plays hard, and he plays the way the game was meant to be played."

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