State School of the Year: Mater Dei

Mater Dei football players (left) celebrate after winning CIF Open Division state championship. At right it’s the girls tennis team with their CIF top divisional state championship trophy and other awards. Photos: Scott Kurtz / Cal-Hi Sports &

A massive fall season with three CIF state titles had Mater Dei of Santa Ana firmly in the lead to be California’s No. 1 school for the 2023-24 school year for outstanding overall athletic excellence. The Monarchs now collect that honor, which is their third in 11 years and seventh time they’ve been on top of the state in their history.

For State Schools of the Year by gender, by division plus writeups of other Top 10 schools for 2023-24, CLICK HERE.


When Mater Dei of Santa Ana was State School of the Year in the back-to-back years of 2013 and 2014 and then again in 2017, one of the reasons for its success was the girls basketball team led by longtime head coach Kevin Kiernan.

It’s only been a few months since Kiernan stepped down as the girls basketball coach, but he’s still going to work as athletic director. He knows as well as anyone that the same type of expectations that he’s always had in girls basketball have always extended to every other sport at the school. It’s about competing and winning at the highest levels possible not just in California but nationally.

Mater Dei has also come close to being State School of the Year a few times since 2017, including once when it was No. 1 for boys sports only. This year, the Monarchs put themselves in an almost unbeatable spot by winning three CIF state titles within a two week span last fall. They’ve now officially been named the winner for the 2023-24 school year. In addition to the those top finishes for 2013, 2014 and 2017, Mater Dei also gained the No. 1 slot for 1997, 1995 and 1992.

The three teams that won CIF state titles — which also made MD one of only three schools in the state for the school year to get to three — came in football, girls volleyball and girls tennis. All were in the highest division of the CIF state playoffs in those sports.

The Monarchs finished 43-2 in girls volleyball with a CIF D1 state title and a No. 1 national ranking. Photo: Garrett Brown /

Football has been one of the Monarchs’ power sports since the 2016 season when the current run of dominance at the top of the state by either themselves or their rivals from St. John Bosco of Bellflower began. This year’s team entered the season No. 1 in all of the national rankings, but stumbled badly in a 23-0 loss to Bosco in the regular season. The Monarchs reversed that loss with a 35-7 win in the CIF Southern Section D1 final and allowed just four yards rushing. The defense was even more dominant in a 35-0 shutout of San Mateo Serra in the CIF Open Division state final. Later in January, QB Elijah Brown was named Mr. Football State Player of the Year.

Before the final football game, Mater Dei grabbed its first CIF state title of the fall with a 3-1 win in games over Archbishop Mitty of San Jose in the CIF Open Division state championship. Head coach Dan O’Dell’s squad also wrapped up a near-perfect 43-2 record and was No. 1 in final national rankings. Isabel Clark, who is now at the University of San Diego, was the CIFSS D1 Player of the Year and Orange County Register Player of the Year.

The first-ever CIF girls tennis D1 state final was played on the same day as girls volleyball, and in that match Mater Dei cruised to a 7-0 win over Menlo School of Atherton. It wasn’t as easy when the Monarchs had to face Westlake of Westlake Village in the CIFSS Open final and then again in the CIF SoCal regional title match. Westlake actually won 82-80 on games after the two teams tied 9-9 on sets in the section final, but head coach Debbie Shaffer’s girls won 5-2 in the second matchup.

Gary McKnight and Kevin Kiernan have now both been ADs at Mater Dei when it’s been State School of the Year. Photo: Harold Abend.

Kiernan won the 900th game of his career in a CIF SoCal Open Division regional playoff game vs. Mission Hills of San Marcos. He had already become the state’s all-time leader a couple of years ago. The Monarchs then lost in their next game to eventual CIF Open Division state champ Etiwanda, but still wound up No. 5 in the final state rankings. Jenessa Cotton (Duke) was later named first team all-state and OC Player of the Year.

All-time state wins leader Gary McKnight and the MD boys basketball team also finished No. 5 in the final state rankings. It ended 29-6 with a big win over Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks in the CIF SoCal D1 regional semifinals before losing in overtime in the region final to St. John Bosco. Sophomore Brannon Martinsen will be returning this next season as one of the state’s top players.

Mater Dei grabbed another CIFSS title in the winter in boys soccer, although the Monarchs did not follow up with a CIF SoCal regional title. Note: A CIF soccer state final next school year is coming. Sophomore Ayden Romo scored the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over previously unbeaten Arlington of Riverside in the CIFSS final. MD lost 2-0 to St. Augustine of San Diego in the SoCal D1 championship and finished 21-3-1.

We would count CIF competitive cheer toward School of the Year, but don’t for the United Cheerleader Association event in Florida. Mater Dei, however, is counting the small varsity division national title won in that event by cheerleading as one of four national titles won by the Monarchs this school year. The others are football, girls volleyball and girls tennis. Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills (also from California) won in the large varsity division in the same event.

There was even more than those sports at Mater Dei, too. The baseball team won the Boras Classic state title, ended 17-13 and was top 20 in the state. The girls water polo team went 30-7 and reached the CIF SoCal Open Division final where it lost to league rival Orange Lutheran. And the softball team got hot in the CIFSS D2 playoffs after a 2-6 league season with upset wins over Millikan of Long Beach, El Modena of Orange and Beaumont before falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Gahr of Cerritos.

Chalk it all up and you can see why it there just wasn’t any other place to go beyond Edinger Avenue in Santa Ana for school of the year.

Congratulations to Kiernan and to all of the coaches, athletes and parents at Mater Dei for everything accomplished during the 2023-24 school year.

Cal-Hi Sports State Schools of the Year
All-Time List

2023-24 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
2022-23 – Santa Margarita (Rancho SM)
2021-22 – St. Francis (Mountain View)
2020-21 – Harvard-Westlake (Studio City)
2019-20 – Buchanan (Clovis)
2018-19 – Buchanan (Clovis)
2017-18 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
2016-17 – Cathedral Catholic (San Diego)
2015-16 – Torrey Pines (San Diego)
2014-15 – Torrey Pines (San Diego)
2013-14 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
2012-13 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
2011-12 – De La Salle (Concord)
2010-11 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
2009-10 – Junipero Serra (Gardena)
2008-09 – Archbishop Mitty (San Jose)
2007-08 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
2006-07 – Archbishop Mitty (San Jose)
2005-06 – Buchanan (Clovis)
2004-05 – Clovis West (Fresno)
2003-04 – De La Salle (Concord)
2002-03 – Torrey Pines (San Diego)
2001-02 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
2000-01 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1999-00 – De La Salle (Concord)
1998-99 – Clovis West (Fresno)
1997-98 – Santa Margarita (Rancho SM)
1996-97 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
1995-96 – De La Salle (Concord)
1994-95 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
1993-94 – Clovis West (Fresno)
1992-93 – Esperanza (Anaheim)
1991-92 – Mater Dei (Santa Ana)
1990-91 – Poway
1989-90 – Bakersfield
1988-89 – Corona del Mar (Newport Beach)
1987-88 – Capistrano Valley (Mission Viejo)
1986-87 – Mission Viejo
1985-86 – Bellarmine (San Jose)
1984-85 – Bellarmine (San Jose)
1983-84 – Cordova (Rancho Cordova)
1982-83 – St. Francis (Mountain View)
1981-82 – Mission Viejo
1980-81 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1979-80 – Berkeley
1978-79 – Mt. Whitney (Visalia)
1977-78 – Andrew Hill (San Jose)
1976-77 – Pasadena
1975-76 – San Fernando
1974-75 – Clovis
1973-74 – Kearny (San Diego)
1972-73 – Monte Vista (Spring Valley)
1971-72 – Ygnacio Valley (Concord)
1970-71 – Lompoc
1969-70 – Blair (Pasadena)
1968-69 – Compton
1967-68 – Homestead (Cupertino)
1966-67 – El Rancho (Pico Rivera)
1965-66 – El Segundo
1964-65 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1963-64 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1962-63 – Santa Clara
1961-62 – McClymonds (Oakland)
1960-61 – Compton
1959-60 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1958-59 – Long Beach Poly (Long Beach)
1957-58 – Berkeley
1956-57 – Fresno
1955-56 – Jefferson (Los Angeles)
1954-55 – Centennial (Compton)
1953-54 – St. Ignatius (San Francisco)
1952-53 – Santa Monica
1951-52 – Compton
1950-51 – Compton
1949-50 – Jefferson (Los Angeles)

Note: All-time list extends back to 1890-91 in the Cal-Hi Sports State Record Book and Almanac. All selections prior to 1980 made retroactively through research by the late Nelson Tennis, founder of Cal-Hi Sports.

Mark Tennis is the co-founder and publisher of He can be reached at Don’t forget to follow Mark on the Cal-Hi Sports Twitter handle: @CalHiSports

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