Hometown Report

‘Never seen anything like it’: Best prep football team – ever? – descends on Sac State

Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson, center, celebrates with players as time runs out in the CIF-SS Division I championship game in Norwalk on Dec. 2.
Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson, center, celebrates with players as time runs out in the CIF-SS Division I championship game in Norwalk on Dec. 2. Orange County Register

This is big-boy football, a different animal with larger claws and sharper fangs to eviscerate all comers.

When Mater Dei of Santa Ana pulls up to Sacramento State on Saturday evening in a fleet of team buses, it’ll take a moment to unload the personnel. The Monarchs have 135 players and 15 coaches.

Nineteen of the athletes are prospects to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level in college, according to various websites. To put that in better context, consider that there have been many years in which the Sac-Joaquin Section did not have 19 scholarship signees among its 190 schools.

The Monarchs are 14-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country. They are so formidable that they loom as a prohibitive favorite over nationally renowned De La Salle of Concord when the teams meet for the CIF State Open Division championship at Hornet Stadium.

De La Salle is a familiar brand that for years set the standard of high school excellence. The program once went 12 seasons without a defeat, rolling to an all-levels record 151-game winning streak that ended in 2004.

The Spartans, big on simplicity, 45-person rosters and five-man coaching staffs who disdain laminated play sheets and headsets, smoked Mater Dei four times in that stretch. That memory led Monarchs coach Bruce Rollinson to recall this week to Mitch Stephens of MaxPreps, “Let’s cut the BS. I had some good teams, and (De La Salle) enforced its will and kicked our (butt).”

Rollinson is a Mater Dei alum and the school’s coach for 29 years. He has produced powerhouse teams throughout the decades, though this figures to be his greatest outfit. And this is why the Open Division of the CIF State playoffs was created: to let the mega heavies have at it while, in effect, allowing public schools a shot at state championships in other divisions.

It’s not often De La Salle is in deep against anyone, given that the Spartans have gone 441-23-3 since 1982 with 21 unbeaten seasons. Since 1992, the Spartans have finished No. 1 in the Cal-Hi Sports state rankings a remarkable 18 times. De La Salle has gone 7-4 in the CIF State bowls since that concept was created in 2006. This is Mater Dei’s first state final appearance.

De La Salle (11-1) is superbly coached, still, and remains the class of Northern California with a 289-game unbeaten streak against teams north of Fresno since 1992. But NorCal cannot compare overall to SoCal, and for all the dazzle of De La Salle, it fields four college recruits, which Mater Dei has on its offensive line alone.

Might the last game of the season be a wipe out?

“It probably will take one of De La Salle’s very best teams for it to beat this Mater Dei group,” Cal-Hi Sports editor Mark Tennis said. “De La Salle is going to have to play out of its mind.”

Mater Dei opened the season by beating preseason national No. 1 Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas 35-21 to snap the Gaels’ 55-game winning streak. And Gorman took apart De La Salle 34-7.

This Monarchs bunch is the best team Steve Fryer has seen in his 40 years of covering high school sports, including his current long stretch at the Orange County Register. And it’s as good a team as Stephens has seen in his 35 years on the prep beat, a good many of them with the San Francisco Chronicle and with MaxPreps.

“What makes them apparently unbeatable?” Stephens said. “They are offensive. Truly. You could make a legitimate case they boast the best quarterback, offensive line and brigade of receivers in the country. And they probably have at least two college running backs also.

“So, if you give the best junior quarterback in the country, J.T. Daniels, all that time with the best offensive line – led by Alabama commit Tommy Brown – to throw to the best receivers – led by the No. 1 WR commit in the country, Amon-Ra St. Brown – it’s sorta not fair. It’s a lethal combination.”

Daniels, committed to USC, has passed for 3,890 yards and 49 touchdowns with four interceptions.

“He’s the most college-ready guy I’ve seen,” Fryer said. “All five guys on the offensive line are Division I recruits, and even by the highest standards, that’s ridiculous.”

How did MD get so dominant? For starters, Orange County has a massive population base, and let’s not fool ourselves. Parents send their kids to elite schools if they have – or think they have – elite athletes. And at schools such as Mater Dei, the culture of competition is profound. Players take their role of being a Monarch personally.

So does the coach, Rollinson, who at 69 has a lot of fire left in him. When the Monarchs didn’t make the playoffs in 2011, Rollinson, “blew the entire program up.” He got more involved in social media, revamped strength and conditioning programs and got involved with youth camps and high school seven-on-seven summer competitions.

And then it got rolling again. Even away from the school, Monarchs players keep striving.

“There’s enough money down here where kids can go and get their private trainers away from the high school,” Fryer of the Orange County Register said. “There are so many good trainers, gyms, private coaches that even the trainers are competitive.”

But there’s something else that defines the Monarchs. Something unique, Fryer said.

“Talent-wise, they’re off the charts, but their competitiveness and ability to be calm, and then get fired up is amazing,” he said. “It’s odd and it’s rare for this age level. They’re like the Rolling Stones with this relaxed power. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

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