Mater Dei’s football team savored the championship glow two weeks ago on the turf at Cerritos College.
The Monarchs’ players sprinted toward the middle of the field to celebrate hard-fought redemption against a heated rival and another section title.
But all the fulfillment and pent-up emotion of that Nov. 23 night didn’t complete Mater Dei’s mission. It delivered an unprecedented yet potentially tricky opportunity for the Monarchs back on the same turf Saturday night.
Mater Dei (12-2) will attempt to capture back-to-back state and national titles for the first time when it meets undefeated and highly-motivated De La Salle (12-0) in the CIF State Open Division championship. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.
“One more game and we’ll be state and mostly like national champions,” said Mater Dei running back Shakobe Harper, one of the team’s four senior captains. “We just have to focus on (De La Salle).”
But after a highly-charged, 17-13 victory against St. John Bosco in the CIF-SS Division 1 final on Nov. 23, how focused will Mater Dei be against a Spartans team it handled 52-21 in the State Open Division championship last season?
Could the Monarchs encounter a letdown?
After Mater Dei’s intense 28-24 victory against IMG Academy of Florida on Sept. 21, the Monarchs came out flat about a month later against St. John Bosco and lost 41-18. Mater Dei was driven for revenge in the Division 1 final.
As it turned out, that Trinity League rivalry was more fiery than the Monarchs let on during the buildup of the third consecutive section final between the schools. The sides faced off on social media before and after the game, which Mater Dei senior linebacker Steele Dubar later called a “grudge match.”
Not surprisingly, the first thing veteran Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson mentioned this week about facing De La Salle was playing with energy, often the trusted guard against complacency.
“We’ve got to bring a lot of emotion,” said Rollinson, who can earn his 300th career victory as Mater Dei’s head coach. “Coming off a big win, I thought we had a decent week last week, but we’re going to have to gas it up.”
The Monarchs’ victory against the Braves also could serve as a positive influence Saturday. Mater Dei knows it passed a daunting task in defeating an undefeated Braves team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Mater Dei is now No. 1 in the two MaxPreps national rankings and by High School Football America.
“It’s a bit of a stress reliever getting through that,” said Dubar, also a captain. “I think we’ll come out fired up and ready to finish this thing.”
De La Salle, ranked sixth and eighth in the nation by the MaxPreps polls, has completed its own self-examination heading into Saturday. The Spartans suffered a rare lopsided loss in the state championship last year at Sacramento State. Mater Dei led 31-7 late in the first half and handed the storied De La Salle program its second consecutive loss in the state finals.
The Spartans have vowed not to let the Monarchs cruise again.
“It’s going to be different,” De La Salle touted linebacker Henry To’oto’o told MaxPreps after a 42-7 victory last week against Liberty in the North Coast Open Division final.
Rollinson believes De La Salle will attempt to employ some of the same strategy the Monarchs used to beat St. John Bosco: dominate time of possession.
“I don’t think they want to defend us,” Rollinson said of his offense, which is led by USC-committed quarterback Bryce Young and wideout Bru McCoy.
In last year’s final, De La Salle’s veer offense was slowed by eight fumbles, four of which it lost. Mater Dei scored 28 points off turnovers.
But if the Spartans can hold onto the ball, they have good options, including To’oto’o, junior running back Shamar Garrett and dual-threat sophomore quarterback Dorian Hale.
On Sept. 14, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound To’oto’o carried the ball 14 times for 132 yards – both season highs – in a 27-21 victory against Bishop Gorman, a team Mater Dei beat 42-0 in August. Garrett rushed for 126 yards against Bishop Gorman as the Spartans finished with 298 yards on the ground.
IMG Academy and St. John Bosco both used a ground-oriented attack against Mater Dei in the regular season, but neither team commits to the running game like De La Salle.
Mater Dei’s defense, however, delivered its reply in the section final. The Monarchs also held De La Salle to 135 yards on 56 carries (2.4 yards average) last December.
Perhaps the bigger question for Mater Dei on Saturday circles back to its mental approach.
“It’s De La Salle and it’s state,” Young said. “We have to finish strong. We’ve been working a long time for this. … There’s only one more week to prove that we’re the best.”
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