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Quick-Change Artists

Staff and player defections have left Santa Margarita in a rebuilding mode

September 27, 2003|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

Who better to lead the renaissance of a high school football program than a quarterback named Michael Angelo?

"I haven't painted too many pictures," joked the unassuming Santa Margarita senior. "I'm not a good artist."

But Angelo and his teammates were forced to work with a blank canvas after a series of changes rocked Santa Margarita last spring, threatening the stability of one of Southern California's most successful programs.

In the span of a few weeks, the Eagles endured three major setbacks:

* Mark Sanchez, a star-in-the-making quarterback, transferred to Mission Viejo.

* The team's top three assistant coaches were laid off from their teaching jobs.

* Jim Hartigan, head coach since the school opened in 1987, left to become the coach at Fresno Clovis West.

"It was a soap opera," said Coach Mike Jacot, the 28-year-old rookie entrusted with navigating Santa Margarita through a rough stretch.

So far, though, it has been a smooth flight for the Eagles, who improved to 3-0 Friday night with a 24-6 victory over Long Beach Jordan, after victories over Santa Fe Springs St. Paul and Redlands.

If anything, the challenges created by the shake-ups appear to have pulled players and coaches closer together.

"Our kids are playing with a chip on their shoulder," Jacot (pronounced Jay-cot) said. "We never had that in the past. I don't think we've ever had anything to prove. This group of guys, they think they have something to prove."

That also goes for Jacot, who has coached at Santa Margarita since 1999 but considered leaving the team after he was laid off along with offensive coordinator Sergio Muniz and special teams coordinator John Rodriguez in May, shortly before spring practice. All three were full-time substitute teachers, a luxury the school could no longer afford.

Hartigan took the cuts personally. Concerned that the football program would suffer along with his suddenly unemployed assistants, he interviewed for the coaching job at Clovis West three days after the layoffs were announced.

Two days later, he accepted the position.

"It was a tough week for everybody," recalled Hartigan, whose Clovis West team is 3-0-1. "But the reason I had to make the decision so quick is because Clovis West needed an answer, and Santa Margarita was unable to put together a new plan after the cuts. I couldn't wait."

Though the school had just laid him off, Jacot agreed to oversee spring practice as interim coach while a search was conducted to find a replacement for Hartigan.

"I didn't think it was fair to leave the kids out in the cold," said Jacot, who was then the team's defensive coordinator.

Hartigan was able to secure positions for Muniz and another assistant at Clovis West. Jacot had hoped to join them, but when those plans fell through Hartigan suggested he apply for the head job at Santa Margarita.

"I said, 'Aw, man, no way,' " Jacot recalled. "I didn't know if I was ready for this type of situation."

Jacot's reservations were understandable. Hartigan, 43, had built an exemplary program from scratch, compiling a 122-44-3 record with four league championships and two Southern Section titles in 14 varsity seasons.

Intrigued by Hartigan's suggestion, Jacot talked to Bert Esposito, who had guided Orange Southern California Christian to the 1991 Division X title when he was 27. Jacot had been Esposito's star running back before going on to play at Fullerton College and Oregon State.

Esposito's message: "If everyone waited until they were ready, we wouldn't have any head coaches."

So, midway through spring practice, Jacot added his name to the list of coaching candidates. He got the job over the other finalist, Anaheim Savanna Coach Tim O'Hara, who had also coached under Hartigan at Santa Margarita.

Among Jacot's first orders of business: finding a quarterback.

Sanchez, a junior, had left the Eagles in the lurch with his transfer to Mission Viejo. Santa Margarita's top remaining candidates were two senior receivers.

Eagle coaches first looked at Ryan Nienhuis, but when that arrangement didn't work out, they turned to Angelo, a backup quarterback his freshman and sophomore seasons.

"[Angelo] had the mechanics to be a quarterback," Jacot said. "He was more a natural fit there."

Having won the job during the summer, Angelo faced the daunting task of carrying on a quarterback legacy. Santa Margarita's alumni includes Carson Palmer, the USC Heisman Trophy winner who led the Eagles to Division V titles in 1996 and '97; Chris Rix, the starter for No. 6-ranked Florida State; and Matt Dlugolecki, who will start for San Diego State tonight against UCLA.

So far, he's doing just fine. Angelo came into Friday's game having completed 50% of his passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns, with three interceptions. He also poses a threat to run out of the Eagles' spread formation, which employs four wide receivers and a single running back. A track standout, Angelo is among the fastest players on the team and rushed 17 times for 117 yards in the first two games.

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