SANTA ANA Mater Dei’s top-ranked football team knew the consequences when it fell to St. John Bosco a month ago.
The Monarchs expected to be placed on the toughest side of the CIF-SS Division 1 playoff bracket and begin a demanding trek toward redemption in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve been predicting we’re going to have to play three (tough games) right in a row,” Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said this week.
The first leg for the Monarchs (9-2) arrives Friday night with a return to Mission Viejo (6-5) for a showdown in the quarterfinals. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Mater Dei beat the host Diablos 49-21 last season in an infamous Division 1 semifinal en route to its first section title since 1999 and an undefeated national title.
Retiring Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson drew attention for calling Mater Dei “the best money can buy” after his final game but the Monarchs didn’t blink.
Mater Dei plans to be just as focused this week.
“(Mission Viejo) has this coaching staff’s attention,” said Rollinson, whose team is ranked second in the nation by MaxPreps’ Freeman poll. “They’re tenacious. They fly around. They execute well. Their special teams are well-designed. It’s going to be a 48-minute battle.”
The Diablos, ranked third in Orange County and 20th in the nation by the Freeman poll, are 9-1 on the field. Four of their losses are by forfeit for an ineligible player, the same pitfall that caused Mater Dei to forfeit its season-opening victory against Bishop Amat.
Mission Viejo lost 21-20 three weeks ago at sizzling San Clemente but won 24-7 at Bishop Amat in the first round of the playoffs. The Diablos also defeated Trinity League teams Santa Margarita (30-20) and Orange Lutheran (37-35) in nonleague games.
They could challenge Mater Dei in at least two ways that caused the Monarchs trouble against St. John Bosco: pass defense and offensive production.
The Diablos feature a standout quarterback in senior Joey Yellen. The Arizona State commit has passed for 3,292 yards and 25 TDs in his pairing with first-year coach Chad Johnson, the former offensive coordinator at St. John Bosco.
Yellen deploys a talented cast of receivers led by JoJo Forest (60 receptions, 1,056 yards) and Akili Arnold (51 receptions, 862 yards).
Mater Dei struggled defending the pass against St. John Bosco quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who threw for 278 yards and five TDs in a 41-18 victory against Mater Dei on Oct. 13.
Mission Viejo’s secondary also will be the best Mater Dei has seen since St. John Bosco, which held the Monarchs to a season-low for points.
The Diablos have 25 interceptions as team, including 17 from the secondary trio of Arnold (seven), Deavyn Woullard (six) and Forest (four).
Mater Dei counters with its own high-powered offense led by USC committed quarterback Bryce Young (2,825 yards, 30 TDs ) and wide receiver Bru McCoy ( 52 catches for 916 yards).
And the Monarchs seem to have recovered from the St. John Bosco loss. Mater Dei has reeled off three impressive victories, outscoring JSerra, Orange Lutheran and Valencia of Valencia a combined 131-20.
Last week, the Monarchs also trimmed their penalties – a season-long problem – to eight for 75 yards.
Their defense also could lean on its past success against Yellen. Mase Funa returned an interception for a TD last season at Mission Viejo.
“I think they’re very positive,” Rollinson said of his players. “They know if they don’t get in their own way, they can take a run at this thing. … We knew because of side we would be on (in the draw), the quarters, semis and obviously the rematch (with St. John Bosco) would be very difficult.”
But before the winner potentially encounters No. 2 seed and undefeated Centennial Corona in the semifinals, it needs to pass the first leg of the challenge Friday.
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