Monarchs defeat late 1990s nemesis De La Salle of Concord to win their first state title and give them a claim to be among state’s greatest squads ever. Their 56-21 triumph included big plays by the usual stars like JT Daniels and Amon-Ra St. Brown plus a few previously unknown ones. They also will be a consensus national champion for the first time.
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You know you’re dealing with an all-time great team when the discussion at the end of the last game of the season is about comparisons to other previous all-time great teams. That was definitely what was happening as Mater Dei of Santa Ana was putting the finishing touches on a 56-21 win against De La Salle of Concord in Saturday’s CIF Open Division state championship.
The Monarchs grabbed an early 21-0 lead, let the momentum slip briefly for a few minutes in the second quarter, but were dominant throughout and earned the program’s first CIF state title. They beat an opponent that has won seven CIF state titles and for 18 times has been the Cal-Hi Sports State Team of the Year.
The state title, combined with two wins over state No. 2 St. John Bosco of Bellflower (with the final one securing the CIF Southern Section Division I championship) plus a significant win in September over national powerhouse Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas that ended that program’s 55-game win streak, all adds up for Mater Dei to be this year’s consensus national rankings champion.
Despite all that, this would still only be Mater Dei’s second-ever final No. 1 state ranking. The first time that happened was in 1991. This also would be the team’s first-ever consensus national rankings title. The Monarchs were No. 1 in USA Today’s final rankings for 1994 and 1996, but not No. 1 in other rankings and were behind De La Salle in the final Cal-Hi Sports rankings for those seasons.
“When you look at it now and now that it’s over, I can say it and that is that this is the best football team I’ve had in my tenure,” said Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson, who completed his 29th season. “I can’t even describe how happy I am for these guys. To go 15 straight games and play like we did every time. Now we can say we’re national champions.”
While Rollinson was happy for the players, many of the players were very happy for him. They were well aware of recent losses in the CIFSS top division final and very much wanted to help their coach get that elusive championship.
“That definitely was a huge factor,” said junior quarterback JT Daniels, who cemented his Mr. Football State Player of the Year candidacy by completing 20 of 30 passes for 233 yards and three TDs and by rushing for a pair of scores, including a 40-yarder in the third quarter that once again displayed his hugely improved running speed from last season. “Rollo has been a great mentor. There have been countless times that I’ve gone into his office for advice on football and life. This was a great way to pay him back.”
Rollinson also said it wasn’t that hard to convince his players what they were up against when “De La Salle” is spelled out on the opposing team’s silver-and-green jerseys.
“I’m no mathematician but I told them that I was 0-4 against them and two times after we lost to them that we went on to win CIF titles,” he said. “They knew we were going against a different breed. Personally, I’ve become friends with Terry (Eidson) and Bob (Ladouceur) and it does make it more special.”
After the Monarchs drove for an 80-yard touchdown on their first series of the game (a 38-yard TD pass from Daniels to Amon-Ra St. Brown), the Spartans quickly began to hurt themselves. There was a fumble on their fourth play that led to Mater Dei’s second score (a one-yard run by Daniels) and then there was a bobbled punt the led to the third score (a 15-yard TD run by Shakobe Harper).
De La Salle made a spirited attempt to get back into the game in the second quarter. The Spartan defense got that rally going with a sack of Daniels and then a fumble recovery on the next play by USC-bound Tuli Letuligasenoa. Senior Kairee Robinson (playing on an injured foot) then ran the ball down to the 3-yard line for the team’s first touchdown. De La Salle then recovered a pooch-style onside kick to get the ball back and was driving for a possible score that could have cut the margin to 21-14.
At that point, the Mater Dei defense disrupted a pass attempt by the Spartans that resulted in sophomore Zion Alefosio grabbing the ball and then racing back the other direction. Alefosio wound up with an 85-yard interception return and the Monarchs were back in control with a 28-7 advantage.
“I got on the opposite side of that play and just saw the ball coming right at me,” said Alefosio, who played a lot of varsity minutes as a sophomore and said this was the first pick six of his high school career. “Once I got it, I just had to go the whole way.”
De La Salle head coach Justin Alumbaugh was as impressed with anyone by the Monarchs’ dizzying talent at all positions, particularly wide receiver, but insisted that beating them was not impossible.
“There’s just a really, really small margin of error,” said Alumbaugh, who fell to 2-3 in CIF state finals since taking over for the legendary Ladoucuer in 2013. “Centennial of 2015 was a great team too and we only had one fumble that night. We’ve just got to get back to work.”
Despite the loss, the Spartans still have a winning record in CIF state finals (7-5) and still will probably once again finish in the top five of the final state rankings. They were No. 3 coming into the night.
St. Brown, who missed some games early in the season with a finger injury, capped his prep career with eight catches for 137 yards and two TDs. He scored the team’s final touchdown in the fourth quarter on a 22-yard pass from Daniels.
Defensively, Jack Genova also had a game-high 15 tackles for the Monarchs while Horace “Bru” McCoy had four catches for 32 yards and one TD.
Robinson, who had 15 carries for 105 yards for De La Salle, scored his second touchdown on a one-yard run in the second quarter that put the halftime score at 31-14. Junior Henry To’oto’o scored the Spartans’ third touchdown in the third quarter on a 1-yard run and also had five tackles on defense.
De La Salle also would be on the list several times with some of the state’s all-time best/greatest teams, especially for some of those squads during the national record 151-game win streak from 1992 to 2004. Most followers of the program rank 2001 on the top, but others prefer 1999 and others like 1998, 1992 or 2003.
Mater Dei and Rollinson lost 52-3 in the 1993 CIFSS top division title game to Eisenhower of Rialto, which also would be one of the top Southern California teams of the last 30 years. Others that would be in the conversation would include Long Beach Poly 2001 (which lost a game to perhaps De La Salle’s best team ever) and St. John Bosco for 2013.
“They just do everything so well,” Alumbaugh said. “They can run when needed, their protection is great and they’ve got wide receivers all over the place. They were a championship team tonight and we weren’t.”
“It was just a typical game for us,” Daniels said. “It was just every game was the same as the week before. We had unfinished business.”
Game MVP: JT Daniels (Mater Dei)
This was kind of a no-brainer after he ran for two scores (one from 40 yards out) and completed 20 of 30 for 233 yards and three TDs. For the season, JT (who has committed to USC) also ended the season with 4,123 yards through the air (52 TDs) plus 569 yards on the ground (9 TDs).
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