Game after game this football season, defensive backs prepared for the challenge of facing receiver Thomas Duarte of Santa Ana Mater Dei. They were told by their coaches exactly what would happen. A pass would be thrown, and you had to outjump or outduel Duarte for the ball.
In the big games Duarte came through. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior caught 15 touchdown passes, many of which could have been grabbed by a defender.
"He has an uncanny ability to go up and get the ball," Ventura St. Bonaventure Coach Todd Therrien said. "We were covering him with two guys."
Duarte also finished with 10 sacks and three interceptions playing linebacker.
"That's Duarte — it's a sack, it's a big catch, it's an interception. It's in every big game," Therrien said.
For being an impact player on both sides of the ball, Duarte has been selected The Times' player of the year in high school football.
"During the off-season, the coaches told me I was expected to go both ways and to be a playmaker," Duarte said. "I put my mind on being a leader for my team and to keep that drive and fire alive inside of me to be what my team needed."
Duarte helped transform a Mater Dei team that failed to make the Pac-5 Division playoffs in 2011 into a team that finished 11-3 and lost in the Pac-5 championship game to Long Beach Poly.
"We've coached some kids that have the ability to take over a football game, and that's what we saw time and time again," Coach Bruce Rollinson said. "Whether it was a series of key catches, whether it was a sack, a caused fumble, whether it was an interception, he was always the guy who sparked it. He's an incredible asset on both sides of the ball."
Born to a Japanese mother and Latino father, Duarte was taught early on to give his best whenever he competes at anything.
His size gave him an advantage, but so did his determination and relentless pursuit of making a catch.
"People say I pick on these little high school guys, but they have as much chance as I do," he said. "It's just a mind-set I have every time the quarterback throws the ball, it's going to be my ball."
He said UCLA, Oregon, Notre Dame and Washington are the colleges he's considering.
"I'm excited to step up to the next level," he said.