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He Played a Waiting Game, and Won : Mater Dei: Running back Chris Ruperto, a former backup to Clifford and Sparks, has helped prolong the season.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chris Ruperto waited . . . and waited.

For two years, others played tailback for Mater Dei. Ruperto sat on the bench, biding his time.

Oh, there were a few chances to get that uniform dirty, flashes really. On special teams, mostly, running downfield to make tackles.

But the opportunities on offense were few.

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Through it all, Ruperto never complained, never sulked. He knew his day would come.

“I always believed I would get my chance,” the senior said. “I was going to be ready.”

Ruperto’s time came, and he made the most of it. The running back has become Mr. Everything for the Monarchs this season.

“Chris is one of the fastest guys on the team and one of the strongest,” quarterback Billy Blanton said. “He does so many things well that he’s just indispensable.”

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Mr. Indispensable will play his last high school game at 7:30 tonight, when Mater Dei faces top-seeded Eisenhower in the Southern Section Division I championship game, which is expected to draw more than 20,000 fans at Anaheim Stadium.

Ruperto, without a doubt, is a big reason the Monarchs are in the title game for the first time since winning in 1965. With 4.6-second speed in the 40, he has been a big-play guy since the season began.

Third and three? Give it to Ruperto, who has proved himself as a runner. He has gained 695 yards this season in a passing offense.

Third and eight? Dump off a short pass to Ruperto and watch him go. He has 25 receptions for 581 yards, a 23.2-yard-per-catch average.

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Third and goal? That’s right, Ruperto’s your man. He has scored 15 touchdowns this season--nine rushing--including five on runs inside the five-yard line.

“He’s a tremendous impact player,” Coach Bruce Rollinson said. “He makes big plays happen.”

In the first game, he caught a short pass and turned it into a 72-yard touchdown play against Hawaii Iolani. The next week, he turned another short pass into a long gain, this time a 70-yard touchdown against Capistrano Valley.

Of his six touchdown receptions, the shortest covered 33 yards.

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“I really relied on him a lot early in the season,” Blanton said. “I remember the St. Paul game, he had two catches where I didn’t know how he got the ball. He kind of twisted his body around on both, while at full speed.”

Ruperto hasn’t had a 100-yard game this season, primarily because the Monarchs travel by air. Blanton has 3,288 yards passing, 38 short of the Orange County record set by Trabuco Hills’ David Lowery in 1988.

“We knew Chris could catch the ball,” Rollinson said. “But he’s really materialized as a threat at running back. He is very versatile.”

It took a while for Mr. Versatile to materialize, but that was because there was a waiting list at tailback.

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Ruperto was a starter on the freshman team that didn’t win a game in Angelus League play. The next year, he was promoted to the varsity by Rollinson, who had just been hired.

“It was a difficult decision,” Rollinson said. “He wasn’t a classic runner. He had some speed, but he kind of stumbled around on the field. But I saw something in his eyes.”

Since then, Rollinson has seen that look often. Against Quartz Hill, Ruperto gained 60 yards.

“He had that I’ll-show-you look in his eyes,” Rollinson said.

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Mr. I’ll-Show-You was Mr. Sit-And-Wait his first two years on the varsity. Ruperto didn’t expect to get much playing time as a sophomore, as he backed up Kealii Clifford, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher.

So Ruperto watched and learned and played on special teams. He thought he would get his chance as a junior. And he did, initially.

Ruperto and David Gonzalez shared time at tailback at the beginning of the season. Then Derek Sparks arrived after transferring from Montclair Prep.

Sparks, who became eligible after the second game, was inserted into the lineup and went on to gain more than 1,000 yards. Gonzalez and Ruperto became situation substitutes, mostly on passing downs.

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“What was I going to do, complain?” Ruperto said. “Derek was a great running back. I just concentrated and tried to learn from him.”

Ruperto and Sparks even became good friends. Sparks helped him develop as a runner.

Two weeks ago, Sparks, now at Washington State, showed up at the Monarchs’ quarterfinal game against Fontana and continued to give Ruperto tips.

Ruperto also got better acquainted last season with Rollinson’s offense, which confused him as a sophomore.

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“It would have been real easy for Chris to be jealous of Derek and complain last year,” Rollinson said. “Instead, he worked hard and got better. The bottom line with Chris is winning.”

And, for that, the wait was worth it.


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