And the No. 1 high school football team is ... Rancho Santa Margarita
(Calif.) Santa Margarita Catholic High.
This is the first time in the five-year history of the RivalsHigh 100 that a team from California has been ranked No. 1 but with 15 impact players returning from last season and one of the most difficult schedules of any team in the Top 25 the chance to hold that spot may be greater than ever before.
The Eagles have almost an entire starting lineup back from a year ago - just one of the reasons it was picked over top schools from other traditional high school power states of Florida, Texas and Georgia.
COACH: Harry Welch LAST SEASON: 13-2
FINAL 2011 RANKING: No. 31 nationally.
There is little that Harry Welch has not done in his 47 years of coaching high school football. That list was made even shorter when the Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Santa Margarita coach was informed that his team would be starting the season atop the RivalsHigh 100.
"It is an honor anytime you get considered for that top billing," he said. "It is the wrong time of the year to get too excited about it but it is certainly an honor."
Santa Margarita starts this season No. 1 nationally on the heels of an exciting 2011 season that saw it finish at No. 31 in the national rankings after a come-from-behind victory in the California Division I Bowl Game. It was Welch's third CIF Bowl win with his third team.
The ranking marks the first time any school from California has been No. 1 in the RivalsHigh 100.
"It is probably three clichés in one, but the bullseye will be bigger on us now," he said. "We will be playing under a microscope and living in a fishbowl."
What onlookers will see is a team that returns nine impact players on offense and six on defense. It also has six current FBS commitments highlighted by three on the offensive line.
Welch said that this is the most talented team he has ever had entering a season.
"Never in my life have I had two boys even offered a Division I scholarship before the first game of a senior year," he said. "This year I have eight.
"I think I have an offensive line, a quarterback, a running back and a wide receiver that any coach in America would want."
Dual-threat quarterback, and Nebraska commit, Johnny Stanton figures to improve on junior numbers that totaled a combined 3,867 yards and 34 touchdowns and included a six touchdown game in the state finals.
Rivals.com West Coach recruiting analyst Adam Gorney said that while Stanton is not the best pure passer he has seen,
the three-star prospect simply gets results.
"There is no doubt Stanton is not a polished quarterback," Gorney said. "But few get the job done like him. He has great size, great moxie and understands the game at an advanced level.
"A team can have as many linemen and playmakers it wants but if the quarterback cannot deliver the team is going nowhere. Stanton can deliver."
Santa Margarita also returns running back Ryan Wolpin; he gained more than 1,500 yards and 29 touchdowns on the ground
last season. The team brings back a trio of receivers, lead by River Cracraft, who is committed to Washington State, and Sean Modster. Defensive back Connor O'Brien, a Washington commit, will also see time as a receiver.
The talent, according to Gorney, will be tough to match anywhere.
"There's really no other way to put it: Santa Margarita is loaded all over the place," he said. "With that talent come lofty expectations like a state championship, an undefeated season and things on that level."
Welch said that his job will be to keep the kids focused on the task at hand and not the headlines the ranking will generate.
It is a challenge that the 67-year-old welcomes.
"I don't burn out and I don't get complacent," he said. "If these kids have garnered anything from me, I hope, it is to enjoy every day. I will let them enjoy this experience but that does not change our expectations."
Expectations that Welch said do not include taking reps off.
He added that the summer Olympics will be a motivational tool for him this season.
"I heard Missy Franklin say after winning another gold medal that she is only 17 and so she doesn't fatigue," he said. "The girls on the gymnastics team are asked to sacrifice food, friends and sometimes fun to achieve their goals and that is how hard I hope these boys will push themselves. We have been given a special opportunity now and it is time to raise the bar."
The unit that will need to step up is on the defensive side of the ball.
Even as the offense puts up video game statistics the defense must improve on
the near 20-points per game it allowed in 2011.
The team will be led by defensive end and Arizona State commitment Nick Begg, linebacker Sammy Gibbs
and the aforementioned Connor O'Brien at safety.
The path to a national title may be one of the most difficult in the nation with few, if any, weeks against poor competition.
Santa Margarita plays in the California Trinity League, one of the most difficult leagues in the country, and then must advance through the PAC5 playoffs before potentially playing a CIF Regional Bowl and then a CIF Open Division Bowl game against the best team from Northern California.
It will again face nationally relevant opponents Anaheim (Calif.) Servite,
Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, Orange (Calif.) Lutheran, and Santa Ana
(Calif.) Mater Dei in league play. Santa Margarita fell to both Mater Dei and Servite last season.
It is that league schedule, as well as games against Phoenix (Ariz.) Brophy and Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure, that Welch believes will test his team and prove its merit nationally.
"There is no other league like the Trinity league," he said. "It may not always be the best league nationally but our fifth and sixth place teams would be the best fifth and sixth place teams in any league across the country. We do not get a week off and that only increases in the playoffs."
If the team exits the season without a blemish Welch said that as subjective as the process is he believes his team could stay at its No. 1 position.
"It really is like judging all of the most beautiful girls in the world and only getting to pick one," he said.
"You can't be sure you are right but if we can prove we deserve it then we deserve it in the end. The worst case is that this will foster optimism and give people something to talk about and give our kids something to strive for. I am up for the challenge and I hope they are too."