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Mater Dei vs. St. John Bosco is a showcase for attracting top talent

Mater Dei vs. St. John Bosco is a showcase for attracting top talent
Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson and St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro will match wits on Friday night in their annual Trinity League showdown. (Dylan Stewart)

It’s the game of the year in high school football. Two programs that have pretty much separated themselves in California — Bellflower St. John Bosco and Santa Ana Mater Dei — will face off at Santa Ana Stadium on Friday night for first place in the Trinity League. Prime Ticket will televise. A capacity crowd of 10,000 is expected.

St. John Bosco is No. 1 and Mater Dei is No. 2 in The Times’ top 25 rankings. St. John Bosco (7-0) has made it to five consecutive Southern Section Division 1 championship games. Its 16-0 team in 2013 was considered best in the nation, led by quarterback Josh Rosen. Mater Dei (6-1) went 15-0 last season as the nation’s consensus No. 1 team, led by USC quarterback JT Daniels. The Monarchs beat the ultimate all-star team, Florida’s IMG Academy, 28-24 three weeks ago.

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How did we get to this point?

To answer that question, you have to remember the comment of former Santa Fe Springs St. Paul coach Elijah Asante, who said in 2012, “I absolutely don’t recruit. I attract.”

There’s been a lot of attracting going on at the two private schools. And 2009 is the year things started to change. Former Mater Dei and UCLA offensive lineman Chris Ward remembers being the lone senior starter receiving a Division I scholarship on a 6-5 team. St. John Bosco went 5-5 in 2009, fired its coach and hired Jason Negro to take over.

By the time Ward returned to Mater Dei to coach the offensive line for coach Bruce Rollinson in 2015, he said, “It was definitely different than when I played.”

The talent level went through the roof. It was the year Daniels arrived as a freshman, along with receiver-linebacker Bru McCoy. Other players were showing up from around Southern California, including the Inland Empire. Vanpools and Uber drives were making transportation concerns disappear for parents. A Southern Section football championship drought since 1999 motivated boosters to pour money into the program.

At St. John Bosco, Negro was getting strong support from his administration in terms of a commitment in hiring top assistants. The Braves went 6-4 in 2010 and haven’t missed the playoffs again. Big-time athletes started arriving as freshmen and sophomores. Located near the 605 and 105 freeways, the Braves started attracting players from Manhattan Beach, Inglewood, Lakewood and Long Beach.

Offensive coordinator Chad Johnson’s spread offense became so effective that it was eventually embraced by almost every team in the Trinity League, including Mater Dei. Big-time donors stepped forward to help St. John Bosco build a $7.2-million stadium that was unveiled in August.

“People want to get their kids scholarships,” said Ward, who now helps run a lineman coaching service, Allegiance Athletics. “They want to get them to Bosco and Mater Dei. It’s a pro and con decision whether it’s worth it. They want to be the guy, but six others came to be the guy, too.”

Both schools have picked up their share of transfers and also lost players. The entire Trinity League has become a testing ground for how far schools will go in the trading of players. San Juan Capistrano JSerra has 13 transfers this season. Its star linebacker, sophomore Jaden Genova, was a JV player at Mater Dei last season and its quarterback, Caden Bell, was a backup at Anaheim Servite.

St. John Bosco has three defensive starters from Servite. Among Mater Dei’s 11 transfers this season are players from Rancho Cucamonga, La Habra, Eastvale Roosevelt and L.A. Cathedral. Parents have decided location no longer matters when choosing a high school. Carpools, vanpools, buses, metro trains and offers of financial aid have changed everything.

About the only school that has been able to keep pace in recent years has been Corona Centennial, a public school with one of the best coaches in Matt Logan and a location with affordable housing. Centennial defeated St. John Bosco in championship games in 2014 and 2015 and is 7-0 this season while waiting to face the Braves or Monarchs in the Division 1 semifinals.

As far as talent is concerned, Friday’s game will be hard to top. The two junior quarterbacks, DJ Uiagalelei of St. John Bosco and USC-bound Bryce Young of Mater Dei, are considered the best in California. McCoy is the No. 1 undecided senior prospect with extraordinary athletic skills. Mater Dei’s entire secondary is filled with top recruits. St. John Bosco has receivers committed to Stanford and USC.

Whatever happens could be just the warmup to a possible rematch in the Division 1 final, but don’t count out Centennial from crashing the party. This game will certainly decide the No. 1 playoff seed and generate so much attention and interest that more players will be attracted to the two schools for 2019.

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