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Their challenge is no small matter

With Welch as football coach, St. Margaret's is continuing to roll along. Serra is already showing signs of improvement with Hartigan in charge.

September 26, 2007|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

The football spotlight doesn't shine on San Juan Capistrano very often, but it did in May when two of its three parochial schools seemed to play a game of "Can You Top This?"

St. Margaret's hired Harry Welch, whose last game as coach at Canyon Country Canyon was a victory over Concord De La Salle, the No. 1 team in the nation, in the inaugural State Division I Bowl championship.

Six days later and two miles up Interstate 5, Serra hired Jim Hartigan, who had won two Southern Section championships at a private school and a Central Section title at a public school. Collectively, they had won eight section championships and 342 games. Football may be their common denominator, but their current situations couldn't be more different.

St. Margaret's had won 29 of its last 31 games, including a Southern Section title last season. Welch's Tartans have won their first three games this season by an average score of 42-13.

Last season, Serra canceled and forfeited all its Trinity League games, citing competitive inequity, so while Hartigan is under no pressure yet as he nurtures inexperienced and undersized players, his long-range task is clear: He must win.

In 2 1/2 weeks, Serra plays its first league game against Santa Ana Mater Dei, which is ranked fifth in the nation by Three of the other four teams in the league were ranked in The Times' top 25 last week, and Orange Lutheran is the defending State Division II Bowl champion.

"This is a tough gig, no question," Hartigan said.

Welch, 62, says he didn't need the job or the money. What he needed was a lifestyle change.

He had been contacted about giving a clinic to St. Margaret's coaches and players in the off-season, but it fell through when the head coach resigned. "I hung up and thought, 'Wait a minute, what if I want to change my life and go in a direction that I'd never considered prior?' " Welch said. He contacted the school and "asked if they could look into who I am and what I've done and would they consider me for the position."

In the meantime, a rift developed between Welch and Canyon Principal Bob Messina. On principle, Welch walked away. St. Margaret's hired him to teach English and his wife, Cindee, to be a counselor, and they moved to upscale Coto de Caza, only seven minutes from a daughter and three grandchildren.

"Success for us is going to be our kids having a good experience," said Marcus Hurlbut, headmaster at 400-student St. Margaret's. "Is it a safe and healthy experience, are they learning about football and are they learning lessons of life through football? The job . . . is not going to hinge on a won-loss record."

Welch won five section titles, once won 46 consecutive games, and amassed a 179-46-2 record at Canyon, and he is, today, the same taskmaster. "I've always had a goal to have students play at the highest level," he said. "My intensity is just as great, but instead of having 190 boys in the program, I have 40."

Welch said St. Margaret's lacked "real focus and commitment to athletics," and that football "was almost like a club sport." He has changed that attitude already.

"He treated us like we were a higher division school and expected us to play that way," said senior Cameron Hiller, who was quarterback for the Tartans' undefeated 2006 Northeast Division championship team. "He's brought a new energy level and work ethic. We can't lag because he's working so hard.

"His main focus is making us better people and he preaches that all the time."

Welch insists he is not out to prove anything.

"If I give everything I can, I expect to be successful," he said. "I'm very cognizant of the scoreboard and the record of the team. I'm not a fool."

Serra is probably years away from matching St. Margaret's win for win. The school has state-of-the-art facilities, a progressive weight-training regimen and players who had to learn the Hartigan way of doing things.

"You look at Mater Dei and Orange Lutheran, the discipline stuff is already taken care of, so they can work on strength, speed, the Xs and O's, the reverse and all that cute stuff," said Sergio Muniz, a longtime Hartigan assistant. "They're showing their players how to play, we're showing them how to practice."

Hartigan was Santa Margarita's first coach and won two Southern Section titles before going to Fresno Clovis West, a Central Section power. There, he reached the section finals three times in four seasons and won a title in 2004. He has a 163-54-4 record. But the Serra program he inherited failed to finish the 2004 season because of injuries, played a freelance schedule in 2005 and went 7-3, but later forfeited six victories, and canceled and forfeited all its league games in 2006.

Hartigan, 47, called this the greatest challenge of his career. "If you saw us the first day of spring and now, you'd say, 'Wow!' "

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