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Big Game! Big A! Mater Dei! : Football: Spirit moves school as players take on nation’s No. 1 team tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out along the concrete corridors of Mater Dei High School, there has been talk of little else. The mood is high voltage, volcanic. Butcher-paper signs splatter the school buildings, screaming slogans like “Red Attitude!” and “Rock-N-Roll Baby!” Who wouldn’t count the days, the hours?

Freshman Michael Cunningham puts the situation in its proper perspective.

“I haven’t been able to study because of it,” said Cunningham, an otherwise levelheaded 15-year-old. “My parents, the neighbors, even my little brother in grade school--everyone is talking about it.”

They’ve got a bad case of Big Game Fever.

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Under the sizzling-bright lights of Anaheim Stadium, before a crowd that could number 25,000 or more, the Monarchs of Mater Dei will take the field tonight against the nation’s No. 1 high school team, Eisenhower High of Rialto, to determine the Division I champion of the CIF Southern Section.

It has been billed as the biggest Orange County football game in a decade, certainly the most important contest at Mater Dei in a quarter century. For the school’s students and fans, who snapped up 6,000 tickets in less than 24 hours, the contest represents the culmination of a week of bubbling drama building up to tonight’s main event.

“It’s electric on campus in a way I haven’t seen it in quite a long time,” observed Cindy Eagan, a former Mater Dei cheerleader and homecoming queen now teaching honors English. Eagan should know. She was a freshman in 1965 when 36,000 people watched Mater Dei win its last CIF championship. “You feel like you’ve stepped back in a time warp.”

Mater Dei, of course, hardly holds a monopoly on school spirit. Orange County has 11 teams represented this weekend in 10 division games that make up the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section finals. It’s the county’s best showing since divisional play was introduced in 1977, and students have been whooping it up in preparation.

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At Tustin High School, they covered their quad with banners in anticipation of a showdown tonight against Valencia High of Placentia. Same thing at Dana Hills High.

The school band at Laguna Hills High, which plays Trabuco Hills, will fill the campus hallways with fight songs today. Irvine High, meanwhile, debuts its new mascot, a vaquero (Latino cowboy), at a pep rally today.

But the Friday night lights will glow hottest at The Big A, where underdog Mater Dei takes on an undefeated Eisenhower squad ranked best in the nation by USA Today, sporting offensive linemen with thighs like tree trunks and a defense that, to a man, wears the look of a hungry predator.

Mater Dei, however, isn’t about to be made an evening snack. They counter with a solid, well-disciplined football team--and something more. Mater Dei Mystique, they unabashedly call it.

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Translation: a big dose of school spirit.

This is the sort of school, after all, that had upward of 3,000 fans drive three hours to attend a quarterfinal playoff game two weeks ago. It’s a school that had its switchboard jammed all week with calls from alumni hot for tickets. This is the institution that declared Monday a holiday so students can reflect on tonight’s game--win or lose.

“We eat, drink and sleep Mater Dei football,” said Terry Gregg, Booster Club president. “It’s consuming.”

Gregg should know. A year ago, the club decided it wanted to kick off the 1991 season by sending the football team to Hawaii for a game.

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To raise money, the 200-parent club drove each weekend to Los Angeles to serve as a game show audience, a paying proposition for nonprofit groups eager to raise cash. They hit them all--"Family Feud,” “Wheel of Fortune,” you name it.

More than $30,000 was raised. The team went to Hawaii and whipped Iolani High at the Aloha Bowl.

Mater Dei Mystique indeed.

All week long, the student body at the private Catholic school has been abuzz with expectation.

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“I’m really excited,” said Trisha Abe, 17, whose throat was still hoarse from cheering at last week’s game. “I just hope my voice comes back so I can scream.”

Abe is hardly unique.

“Everywhere you go on campus, people are talking about the game,” said Assistant Principal Patrick Murphy. “So many of the faculty here were Mater Dei students, they’re as excited as the kids.”

Football players have gotten the usual treatment. A basket of goodies was prepared for each, and the team feasted Thursday night on the Booster Club’s traditional pregame pasta dinner. Some were interviewed this week by a local television news team.

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“This week especially, all of the students have been talking to us about the game,” said David Knuff, senior class president and a star tight end and linebacker. “It’s something like this that brings the school together.”

Although school authorities once frowned on the idea of pregame posters, fearing the walls would be blistered by a blizzard of tape, the prohibition has been relaxed in recent times. On Thursday, it seemed put to rest for good.

After the week’s rainy weather cleared out, the students plastered the brick-wainscot buildings with scads of butcher-paper signs, most of them in the school’s trademark red and emblazoned with Monarch mottoes made famous by Coach Bruce Rollinson, the team’s fiery field leader.

The charismatic Rollinson will commandeer the microphone at the school’s noon pep rally in the grassy central grotto. It will mark the first rally ever open to all 2,100 students (typically, attendance is limited by the school’s cramped gymnasium).

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“This place will be buzzing,” said Rollinson, who played on the ’65 championship team. “There’s something special about a game day at Mater Dei. . . . I’ll get ‘em going.”

Times researcher April Jackson contributed to this story.

MR. INDISPENSABLE: C1


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