Santa Margarita shows it is making summer football progress

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Santa Margarita’s football team has been assigned a bit of summer reading. Not by their teachers. By their coaches.

Every so often, the team huddles into small groups and discusses what they’ve read of the book “Legacy,” about the All Blacks — New Zealand’s national rugby union team — and their unprecedented success. The first chapter, Santa Margarita coach Anthony Rouzier says, is about the leaders of the All Blacks taking it upon themselves to keep their equipment clean by sweeping their sheds.

That simple act has become the team’s mantra. Players are individually taking it to heart.

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“As a quarterback, everyone looks at you, but you can’t be too big for the team,” junior signal-caller Jaxon Potter said. “You have to do all the little things correct. That’s what sweeping the shed [means].”

It wasn’t surprising to see a Trinity League team walk away with a victory in Saturday’s “Battle on the Beach” seven-on-seven tournament at Edison High. What was surprising, however, was that team being Santa Margarita, which beat Santa Ana Mater Dei in the semifinals and Servite in the championship game.

It was a great team win, Rouzier said in their post-victory huddle, and an example of where “sweeping the sheds” could take them.

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“It’s all about culture,” Rouzier said. “It’s all about building something where character is over talent at all times. We had a lot of guys that just came and stepped up.”

Potter was one of those guys. A transfer from JSerra, he kept the ship steady in a back-and-forth affair against Mater Dei, switching off possessions with steady-in-his-own-right junior quarterback Gavin Shaigineik. Eventually, with time expired on a tie game, Potter won the game with a short pass on a longest-yard situation from Santa Margarita’s 40-yard line.

“It’s huge for the program,” Potter said, “because when you come out and beat [two of] the top [three] teams in the nation, people see that, and then people will want to come play with you.”

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Junior tight end Nico Lopez, whom Rouzier dubbed midgame “Agent Zero” due to his number, made big plays for Santa Margarita during the tournament. Other standouts Rouzier pointed to were junior wide receiver Nick Gallegos and junior running back Jake Foye.

All of them will have parts to play in filling the shoes of Santa Margarita’s now-graduated standout quarterback Colt Fulton and others. The tournament win looks even more improbable considering they’ve had just a couple of months of workouts after the end of their season in April to try to smooth that widespread roster turnover.

But that’s a phenomenon almost every program is dealing with. The pandemic delayed last year’s season until well into the spring, but the 2021-22 slate is starting Aug. 20, just like normal. With that comes a shorter offseason, and the lack of cohesive reps may have slightly evened the playing field Saturday.

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“It’s just tough,” said Edison head coach Jeff Grady. “Everybody’s in the same boat.”

Grady and St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro both lamented the shortened time for strength training and conditioning. Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson has never faced this issue in his 32 years with the program; he said his coaching staff was constantly monitoring his players’ regimens — even down to their diets — to make sure the lack of turnaround time wouldn’t burn them out midway through the season.

It’s been especially tough on programs such as Culver City heading into the tournament.

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Coach Jahmal Wright is grappling with the loss of most of his standouts on offense, seniors including Zevi Eckhaus, The Times’ all-star quarterback of 2020. In their place are five freshman wide receivers and a freshman quarterback. To complicate matters, the group has just three practices under its belt, Wright said, down from the 14 or so they’d normally have at this time in the offseason.

They ran into Mater Dei in their first matchup on Saturday and lost 39-7.

“We bit off a big chunk there,” Wright said, “playing one of the best teams in the nation when we have a freshman quarterback.”

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Yet that freshman quarterback, Alonzo Esparza, is one to keep an eye on. Esparza plays and speaks with a wise confidence that belies youthful exuberance. He throws one of the prettiest spirals, and said he had no nerves facing some of the top programs in the country.

Culver City beat Valencia, the eventual consolation bracket champion, directly after the Mater Dei loss.

“We’re coming out here to just play and get better,” Esparza said. “We might not win every game, and we’re coming in here as the underdogs.”

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Underdogs largely prevailed Saturday, with Servite also beating St. John Bosco in the semifinal. As the 20-plus programs in attendance for the “Battle on the Beach” tournament regroup for the fall, each faces its own challenges in gelling their rosters within a shortened timeframe.

Santa Margarita, for one, will keep sweeping the shed.

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