With state and national No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana having the week off due to being top seed in the eight-team CIF Southern Section D1 bracket, we thought it would be a perfect time to look back at the Monarchs’ first team that ended a season No. 1 in the state in 1991. It also was the first CIFSS title team in the legendary career of head coach Bruce Rollinson.
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In the current era of Santa Ana Mater Dei football, starting out a season not among the top 10 in the state would seem impossible.
But in 1991, it was different times. The Monarchs had just reached the semifinals in the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs for the first time in 24 years only in the previous season and despite having a strong group of returning players they were behind Orange County teams Esperanza of Anaheim and Mission Viejo in the state and Orange County preseason rankings.
It all ended much differently, of course. Mater Dei had the first and still perhaps the most magical night in its football history at Anaheim Stadium. Head coach Bruce Rollinson, then in just his third season, got the 1991 team one step further to the CIFSS title game and in that game the Monarchs faced season-long national and state No. 1 Eisenhower of Rialto before the second largest crowd to ever witness a CIFSS championship –33,218 — and knocked off the Eagles, 35-14. They finished 13-1 and the next week also were named State Team of the Year for the first time in school history.
“You don’t ever forget the first one,” Rollinson said. “That was the one that launched us.”
The Preseason & First Game (in Hawaii)
Losing in the semifinals in 1990 didn’t just provide some motivation to the returning players, it also was a learning experience for the head coach.
“You look at 1990 and that had a lot to do with 1991,” Rollinson said. “I didn’t realize how big it was (to be in the semifinals) and was wet behind the ears. I did a horrible job managing the media and learned things about being more prepared the further you go in the playoffs. But we also tasted it and saw how close we were. We had a lot back, beginning with Billy Blanton, who had already emerged as one of the top QBs. With the offensive and defensive lines that we had coming back, we knew the nucleus was there.”
The 1991 season began with the first out-of-state game in Rollinson’s career and it was another example of how the Monarchs at the time were viewed not quite like they are today. It was an appearance at a big event in Hawaii known in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Skip Akina Classic in which top teams from outside of Hawaii came in to play the best in-state teams at Aloha Stadium (site of the NFL Pro Bowl Game for many years). The feature game in the 1991 Skip Akina Classic was St. Louis of Honolulu playing Bakersfield, followed by Kahuku playing Banning (Wilmington). Mater Dei’s opponent was Iolani of Honolulu.
Mater Dei came out strong against Iolani (we were there) and went on to get a 34-20 win, but the bonding that the 1991 team got to experience during a six-day trip is what was most important.
“A lot of us had to earn money to get to go on that trip,” said 1991 defensive back Jimmy Nolan, who was interviewed along with several others from the team at an alumni event held at Mater Dei recently prior to this year’s game against Servite of Anaheim. “We spent the whole summer to get there.
“I really remember a big campfire we had on the night before the game. After that, we truly were a brotherhood.”
“That was the unification of the 1991 team,” Rollinson remembered. “We went swimming together and we handled all of the details that went into it. We stayed at a YMCA camp away from everything and knew something special was going on. They became inseparable.”
The Regular Season
As preseason state No. 1 Eisenhower of Rialto continued to win (along with preseason state No. 2 De La Salle of Concord), Mater Dei made its first appearance in the state top 10 after its third game. That was a 47-9 romp past St. Paul of Santa Fe Springs. Blanton completed 15 of 19 passes for 265 yards and four touchdowns.
The next big game was in week six. Mission Viejo was still in front of Mater Dei in the state and in Orange County at 5-0, but the 5-0 Monarchs blasted the Diablos, 42-7, and after that were always looked at as one of the state’s top teams. In that game, Blanton completed 13 of 23 passes for 337 yards and three TDs.
After easy wins of 35-7 against St. John Bosco of Bellflower and 44-0 against Servite of Anaheim, Mater Dei had risen to No. 4 in the state at 8-0 and then came a league matchup vs. Loyola of Los Angeles. The Cubs upset the Monarchs, 28-20, sending them back behind Loyola in the SoCal and state rankings.
“We had a couple of guys banged up and then there were four other players that I sat down for violating team rules,” Rollinson recalled. “No excuses because Loyola had a great team. I just told them that the only way you can erase that taste in your mouth was to get out there and win the whole darned thing.”
That message was received.
“That loss definitely made us stronger,” said 1991 player Mark Entner. “It made us want it even more. We said to ourselves, ‘Never again.'”
The Monarchs had a bye after the loss to Loyola and then in their final regular season game took on a Bishop Amat of La Puente team that was 9-0 and had gone up to No. 3 in the state. They won, 24-6, and held the Lancers to just 52 yards rushing while also intercepting four passes. It resulted in a three-way for the Angelus League title, but the focus then (and which is the same as now) switched to winning the CIFSS title.
The Playoffs & Championship Game
It sure helped from a motivational standpoint that Mater Dei played a Quartz Hill squad in its first CIFSS D1 playoff game that was the same team it lost to in the playoffs from the year before. The Monarchs blitzed the Rebels, 34-8, as Blanton fired three TD passes to David Knuff (who also was one of the team’s top players during the regular season).
In the quarterfinals, Rollinson’s group played 10-1 Fontana. The Steelers were a program that had been No. 1 in the state twice in the late 1980s and had lost their only game to state No. 1 Eisenhower by a close score. They had risen to No. 3 in the state (with MD up to No. 8) and for the third time it was the Monarchs who crushed it against a team that was No. 3 in the state with a 46-16 victory. Blanton completed 14 of 19 passes for 284 yards and three TDs.
Everything then fell into place to help set up the Monarchs for a chance to be No. 1 in the state. They were able to face the only team they had lost to, Loyola, in the semifinals and avenged that defeat with a 35-21 triumph over the Cubs. Eisenhower rolled in its semifinal game (39-7 over Long Beach Wilson) and up north state No. 2 De La Salle of Concord lost in the CIF North Coast Section D1 final, 35-27, to Pittsburg (actually the last time DLS has lost in a section final). It was all set up for No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the state for the final with Eisenhower also looking to complete a wire-to-wire run atop the national rankings (both USA Today & Associated Press).
The large crowd coming to the stadium was somewhat unexpected by the CIFSS staff. Long lines at the ticket windows caused the section to delay the start of the game by more than 30 minutes.
“We knew it was going to be extra crazy when we saw those long lines that seemed like miles long,” Nolan recalled. “This was when the (L.A.) Rams were there and they weren’t that good. We were getting a bigger crowd than them.”
“It was awesome to play in the stadium and it was great seeing it fill up,” Rollinson said. “As we’re warming up, my starting tailback, Chris Ruperto, comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, something’s wrong with me.’ He was soaking wet. We went to the team doctor, who told us Chris had blown his fluids as a reaction by his body to all the nerves and anxiety. We calmed him down, but had to get an IV into him and I didn’t think we’d have the time before the start of the game.”
With the delay, though, Rollinson was able to get his team more focused. His approach was to take the players off the field, and sit in their locker room in what he described as “stone, cold silence.” Eisenhower head coach Tom Hoak kept his players on the sidelines where they were seen throwing the ball around and generally taking in the atmosphere of the big crowd.
In looking back at that title game, Mater Dei’s 35-14 triumph was portrayed as a huge upset. Eisenhower, after all, had been No. 1 in the nation since the preseason. But that’s not looking the season in its entirety. The Eagles were mainly No. 1 because they had started there and did not lose. They did have a one-point win against San Gorgonio of San Bernardino plus Mater Dei’s win in the playoffs over Fontana was by a larger margin than Ike’s over Fontana in the regular season.
“It was just amazing,” Entner said. “Just looking around the stadium made us get our adrenaline going throughout the game. It was like a red wave.”
“Sometimes, as coaches, we don’t realize the enormity of these games,” Rollinson said. “Earlier that week, Billy’s mother was helping out with the food at a team meal and she broke down crying, saying she didn’t know how (Billy) was going to do this. I told her, ‘He’s going to be fine. The bigger the game, the bigger he plays.'”
Blanton was indeed more than fine. He tossed a TD pass to Knuff off of a flea-flicker trick play in the early going and later threw for two TDs to Roger Morante. He finished 15 of 25 passing for 251 yards and three TDs. Brian Barajas also had one of the plays of the night as he picked off a pass and raced for a 63-yard touchdown. Nolan also had what Rollinson described as an interception in which “he skied for it and got a foot in-bounds.”
“One of my assistant coaches at the time, Rich Rogers, got to me in the fourth quarter and wanted me to start bringing out the seniors and the starters,” Rollinson remembered. “After a few minutes, we did. When the offensive line came out as a group, it was time for the tears. We had done it.”
Blanton, who later played at San Diego State and was inducted into the SDSU Hall of Fame in 2015, was the first team all-state quarterback. He also finished with 196 completions in 300 attempts for 3,485 yards and 37 TDs. Knuff, who later played at Washington State, was the squad’s other first team all-state selection in a multi-purpose position (he also played linebacker) plus he was selected as the CIFSS D1 Player of the Year. He wound up with 67 catches for 1,196 yards. In addition to those two, Jason Thies, Jose Gonzalez and Brian Broadbent also were All-CIF Southern Section. Juniors Ray Jackson, Parker Gregg, Robert Molina and Barajas were on the All-CIFSS team the following season (1992).
The players interviewed also talked about how they were one of the last teams built among players who in many ways grew up together. “It’s not the same now,” Nolan said not long after a group of obvious 300-pound current Monarchs had walked by. “We’re happy they’re so good and we get it. It’s just not the same.”
Rollinson, of course, is still Mater Dei’s head coach and shows no signs of slowing down as this year’s team heads into its first CIFSS D1 playoff game against Norco as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. According to the Cal-Hi Sports records (which don’t count forfeits), Rollinson is tied for fifth on the all-time state list with retired Los Alamitos head coach John Barnes with 323 career wins. He might have to coach two more seasons to pass El Toro/Mission Viejo’s Bob Johnson for the No. 3 spot at 342 (which also is No. 1 for Orange County).
“Our DC (defensive coordinator Eric Johnson) was great and Rollo is such a great motivator,” Entner said. “And he’s still got the same nucleus of coaches (including offensive coordinator Dave Money). That’s what might be most amazing.”
Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of CalHiSports.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle:
My son, Jason Thies was co-captain of the ‘91 team. As vp of the football boosters, I was invited to the pre- season camp in Hawaii, where we defeated Iolani in the Hula bowl. I watched from the sidelines , full of excitement.
Bruce is a great coach and motivator with a fun sense of humor.
Jason passed up college offers to focus on studies and to avoid the physical damage of the rigors football.
I played at the Univ of Dayton and can confirm Jason’s wise decision.
Your article was complete and accurate. Thanks
Proud father, Jim