By Martin Henderson
They’re for real. Trabuco Hills didn’t win its nonleague showdown Thursday against Santa Margarita, but the Mustangs proved to themselves—and all in attendance—they could hang with the best teams in the county. Had they won, it would have been the biggest win in Scott Orloff’s four-year coaching tenure at Trabuco; instead, its 28-26 setback was, by a long shot, the most meaningful loss.
After four victories against good teams and solid programs, the Mustangs proved they could hang with the county’s best.
“You can play with the big boys. … I am so proud of you,” Orloff exhorted to his team afterward, making sure they didn’t feel so much like losers as winners.
And on this night, even though they lost in the standings, they won. Everyone did.
Score: Santa Margarita Catholic 28, Trabuco Hills 26
Key Stats: Jeremy McNichols rushed 25 times for 117 yards and two touchdowns, and caught four passes for 78 and another TD for Santa Margarita. His quarterback, K.J. Costello, completed 21 of 31 for 258 yards, an interception and two touchdowns.
Pivotal Moment: Trailing 20-14 late in the third quarter, Costello rolled to his right and lobbed a pass to his left to McNichols, who was wide open. The tailback took the pass and dashed 49 yards for a touchdown, and Alex Ury’s extra point gave SMCHS a 21-20 lead. The three-play, 70-yard drive knocked the wind out of the Mustangs and their fans; Trabuco’s next drive was three-and-out, and the one after that was a first down fumble that set up Santa Margarita’s decisive 55-yard scoring march.
Quotable: "It's a sign of a pretty special person who's on the ropes and doesn't quit and doesn't give up, and the Eagles didn't," Coach Harry Welch said of his SMCHS team. "I think (Jeremy McNichols) came of age tonight. He was quite good."
Records: Santa Margarita (3-2), Trabuco Hills (4-1)
Notes: The battle for Santa Margarita Parkway supremacy included Santa Margarita, ranked No. 4 in the Orange County Top 10, and Trabuco Hills, ranked No. 5. … Tommy Kelley completed 18 of 30 passes for 222 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another touchdown. Four completions to Jake Breeland accounted for 82 yards, and three to Connor O'Malley accounted for 78. ... Jordan Hettinger rushed 10 times for 52 yards for Trabuco. ... Kyle Sweet caught 12 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown, including a 30-yard score in the first quarter that gave Santa Margarita a 7-0 lead. … Trabuco answered in the second quarter when Tommy Kelley found Connor O’Malley for 65 yards. … There were two controversial plays. Trabuco Hills contended an official blew his whistle right after the snap in which Costello passed 36 yards to Sweet on a first-and-25 that eventually ended with McNichols scoring from two yards for a 14-7 lead, and a fourth quarter pass that Costello bounced to Sweet in the flat that was ruled a lateral; Sweet took the third-down play nine yards to keep alive the Eagles’ decisive scoring drive that covered 60 yards in six plays and ended with McNichols scoring from the 1 on fourth down with 3:34 left in the game. … Trabuco answered the Eagles in impressive fashion. It drove 80 yards. Kelley connected on three passes, including 32- and 12-yarders to Jake Breeland, before scrambling into the end zone from 10 yards with 31 seconds remaining. ... Trabuco’s two-point conversion attempt to tie the score was open, but Kelley—who avoided pressure before spotting Michael Newsom in the back of the end zone—overthrew his target. … Trabuco needed the two-point conversion because normally reliable Blake Cuzzupoli pulled a point-after attempt that followed Kelley’s 10-yard pass to O’Malley that gave the Mustangs a 20-14 lead with 6:33 left in the third quarter. … One of the key plays of the game, and maybe the season for Trabuco, came late in the second quarter. The defense, which sacked Costello six times, held on four downs at the SMCHS 45, and on the next play Kelley hit Breeland for a touchdown that tied the score at 14-14 with 1:41 left in the half. At that point, Trabuco believed it could play the Eagles straight up. They shouldn’t lack for confidence the rest of the season. … Next week, Santa Margarita has a bye before playing St. John Bosco—coached by former Trabuco Coach Jason Negro—in the Trinity League opener. … Trabuco continues its nonleague schedule next week at home against another Trinity League opponent, JSerra (3-0), which is ranked No. 8 in the county top 10. … How big was this game? Bosco, Long Beach Poly and Mission Viejo had coaches in attendance.