Amid temperatures that Southern California kids would label as freezing but Michigan kids might view as slightly cool, Santa Ana Mater Dei players celebrated being the No. 1 football team in California, if not the nation, after completing a 15-0 season on Saturday night at Sacramento State.
“Dilly Dilly!” coach Bruce Rollinson roared.
With his hands buried in a customized pocket in the front of his jersey while trying to keep warm, quarterback J.T. Daniels gave every impression that he had given his all after a 52-21 rout of Concord De La Salle in the CIF state championship Open Division bowl game.
“I’m really dead,” he said. “My body’s done. It couldn’t have ended at a better time. There’s no greater feeling than getting to watch all these seniors and send them off with a CIF state [title].”
The result left him and his teammates in rarefied company.
Rollinson, Mater Dei’s head coach since 1989, finally admitted what others had come to believe about a team that never trailed once in 15 games this season.
“Now I can say it. Yes, best football team I’ve had during my tenure at Mater Dei,” he said. “They started No. 1 and ended No. 1. They just do it every time. They punch the clock. They go to work. They execute. You can’t say enough about our offensive and defensive lines.”
The game started with Daniels leading Mater Dei on an 80-yard scoring drive that saw Amon-ra St. Brown catch a 38-yard touchdown pass, then make the ball spin around on the turf for nearly six seconds in a trick he had been practicing since last spring.
“I had to,” he said. “Last game.”
Mater Dei’s combination of a strong senior class with a sophomore class that went 10-0 as freshmen helped send the Monarchs to their first ever bowl victory and their first ever win over De La Salle. It brought to a conclusion a long, exhausting season with many highlights.
Let’s start by proclaiming 2017 as the year of the receiver. Mater Dei had four great ones in St. Brown, Nikko Remigo, C.J. Parks and junior Bru McCoy.
“Thank you for making my job easy,” Daniels said of his receivers.
But top receivers were seemingly everywhere. The 6-foot-8 Darren Jones of Upland had 101 receptions for 2,089 yards and 28 touchdowns. Marquis Spiker of Murrieta Valley set a state record for most career touchdown catches at 69. Stanford-bound Michael Wilson of West Hills Chaminade earned Mission League MVP honors by averaging 20.7 yards a catch.
This also was the season for players to rush passers at will. Junior defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux of Westlake Village Christian and senior Jeremiah Martin of Cajon had 20 and 31 sacks, respectively. Abdul-Malik McClain of San Juan Capistrano JSerra had 18 sacks.
Defensive backs also weren’t too bad, led by Olaijah Griffin of Mission Viejo. He gave new meaning to the term lock down cornerback.
The season ended with the stunning news that the City Section had made history by producing two state bowl champions in Narbonne and Crenshaw.
In looking forward, many of the same teams that enjoyed success will be back in 2018. Mater Dei figures to battle it out again with Trinity League rival Bellflower St. John Bosco for supremacy after beating the Braves twice this season. Both are loaded with outstanding players from the class of 2020.
The question of whether Daniels, a junior and two-time Gatorade state player of the year, will reclassify and enter USC this coming season seems unlikely after his comment on Saturday night.
After doing his best Arnold Schwarzenegger “I’ll be back” imitation, Daniels insisted, “I will.”