High-Stakes Game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In this corner, wearing red and white, stands Mater Dei, one of the state's most successful football programs in the 1990s. The Monarchs have played in five Southern Section Division I championship games this decade, winning three. They are ranked fifth in the state.

In the other corner, wearing green and white, stands Concord De La Salle, the most successful football program in the state in the 1990s. The Spartans have won a national-record 78 consecutive games and six North Coast Section titles in a row. They are the state's top-ranked team and sit atop USA Today's national rankings.

At 7:30 Saturday night at Edison Field, Mater Dei (2-0) and De La Salle (2-0) will meet in one of the state's most anticipated prep football games ever.

"This will be the biggest Northern California-Southern California game since the state playoffs in the 1920s," said Mark Tennis, editor of Cal-Hi Sports. "It's that significant."

It's the first meeting between the schools, who will play again next year in Northern California. Athletic directors Gary McKnight of Mater Dei and Terry Eidson of De La Salle spent parts of the past three years arranging the game.

"We tried to set it up two years ago but just couldn't work out the schedules because they were in a battle over releaguing," McKnight said. "This year, things came together."

The call from McKnight was a case of perfect timing, Eidson said.

"We came to [the Bay Valley League] with a proposal to go semi-independent with five nonleague games," Eidson said. "Three teams in our league volunteered to keep playing us, and both Mater Dei and Bakersfield were waiting on us."

Mater Dei and De La Salle mirror each other. Both are private Catholic institutions, are not restricted by district boundaries when it comes to attracting student-athletes, and, as Eidson wryly noted, "play in [public school] leagues that don't want you."

Mater Dei will be removed from the South Coast League after this school year by Southern Section vote, returning to the Catholic Athletic Assn. De La Salle no longer competes for the Bay Valley League championship.

Mater Dei opened its season with victories against Fresno Clovis West and Bellflower St. John Bosco, and on Saturday hopes to knock off its third nationally top-ranked team this decade. In 1991, the Monarchs beat Rialto Eisenhower in the section Division I title game, and in 1994, they defeated Los Alamitos, which at the time had a 47-game unbeaten streak, in the Division I semifinals.

Twice, in 1994 and '96, Mater Dei ended the season as USA Today's national champion. And in both years, the Monarchs were ranked second in the state to De La Salle by Cal-Hi Sports.

De La Salle, with victories against Grass Valley Nevada Union and Bakersfield this season, hasn't lost since Dec. 7, 1991, when it fell to Pittsburg, 35-27, in its section 3-A title game.

The Spartans will carry the pride of Northern California prep football on their shoulder pads.

"Northern California feels it doesn't get respect because it doesn't have the population density of Southern California," Oakland Bishop O'Dowd football Coach Paul Perenon said. "That's why even coaches up here who don't like De La Salle are pining to see them win. They feel this is the consummate test.

"A lot of posturing between Northern California and Southern California will be put into correct perspective based on the outcome."

Said Edison Coach Dave White: "It's definitely a big deal to Northern California, but it's also a big deal to Orange County. Whether it branches beyond that, we'll see."

Nearly all conversation regarding De La Salle revolves around its winning streak. Last year, the Spartans surpassed the previous record of 72, set by Hudson (Mich.) from 1968-75.

But streaks are nothing new to De La Salle. Since 1987, the school's football team has also enjoyed 34- and 44-game winning streaks.

"You would think that over the past five to six years somebody would have that extraordinary year where they are loaded and knock off De La Salle," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said. "And yet, they don't.

"Part of the answer is they have good football minds at that school. They also have very physical, well-conditioned athletes."

Perhaps a more remarkable streak is that De La Salle, which operates a veer-T run-oriented offense, has scored in 222 consecutive games. The last time the Spartans were shut out was in 1979.

"The one thing to me that stands out about the [winning] streak is it shows we are consistent and have done some things right," said Bob Ladouceur, De La Salle's coach since 1979. "Other than that, we don't put much stock in it.

"You're not going to get talented kids every year. Sometimes you have to create good players out of average ones, and average players out of not-so-good ones. That's the nature of high school sports."

The knock on De La Salle has been its schedule. The Spartans rarely stray out of Northern California. Before Friday's game against Bakersfield, they had played only one other team from Southern California since 1982, defeating Vista Rancho Buena Vista in 1995 and '96.

But Mater Dei, while playing games in Hawaii and Las Vegas, did not schedule a Northern California opponent during that stretch.

Southern California fans also point to the difference in size of the sections in which the schools compete. The five Northern California sections--North Coast, Northern, San Francisco, Oakland, San Joaquin--total 361 schools. The Southern Section alone has 510 schools.

"De La Salle can compete with anybody," Esperanza Coach Gary Meek said. "They are one of the outstanding programs in the country. But I don't think, week in and week out, they play the caliber of teams those of us down here in Division I play. The competition quality level for some of the top schools up [north] is not the same caliber that we line up against."

Said White: "In their minds, Northern California has something to prove. That whole area will root for De La Salle to show the Southern California boys they can play. We have some great teams down here--Long Beach Poly, Mater Dei, Bishop Amat, Santa Margarita--who feel they don't have to prove anything."

That's the kind of thinking some Northern California coaches say is demeaning.

"Southern California is arrogant, big-time, about high school football," Oakland Skyline Coach John Beam said. "Well, De La Salle is a quality football program. This should be one heck of a game, but one game doesn't decide which area is better.

"Southern California has more schools, but you put the top programs against each other, year in and year out, and it's a wash."

Speculation on the size of Saturday's crowd varies. Some expect more than 20,000 for the first football game played at the stadium, which has a capacity of 45,050 since its renovation.

Bob Gonzales, Mater Dei's facilities director, said his school has sold more than 3,000 tickets as of Friday, with 1,500 student tickets going on sale this week. He said they have sold out their allotment of field- and club-level seats, but terrace-level tickets are still available.

"I've been told that De La Salle has sold about 3,900 tickets up there," Gonzales said. "We're hoping for campus ticket sales of 6,000-7,000 by game time. And hopefully there will be more walk-up sales at the stadium."

The gate will be a factor in determining whether the teams will meet beyond next year's rematch.

"If we can get 15,000 I think we're OK," McKnight said. "We want to make the money to pay for our trip there next year. We don't always get large crowds [from the opposing team] at Santa Ana Stadium."

Eidson said a large crowd might stir interest in more North-South games, perhaps even reviving a state championship game that was last played in 1927.

"I don't know, the attitude may be that certain teams would dominate," Eidson said. "But if we do pack the stadium, CIF will see there is money to be made."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

What: Mater Dei Vs. Concord De La Salle

When: 7:30 p.m., Sept. 26

Where: Edison Field

Tickets: $5 for students, $8-12 for others

TV: Fox Sports 2, delayed on Sept. 27

Tale of the Tape

So what separates Mater Dei and Corcord De La Salle, other than hundreds of miles? A quick look at the two teams.

MATER DEI

ENROLLMENT: 2,100

COACH: Bruce Rollinson (101-17-1)

ALUMNI: John Huarte, Heisman Trophy winner, Class of 1961; Rod Perry, state player of the year in 1996, Class of 1997; Billy Blanton, All-CIF quarterback, Class of 1991

OFFENSE: The Monarchs run multiple formations, ranging from the power I to single-back, four-receivers. The offensive line has size (averaging 255 pounds) and is adept at run- and pass-blocking. Junior Palacios does the bulk of the rushing. Kelvin Millhouse, Jose Aguilar, Gerard Fane are the receivers.

DEFENSE: The strength of the team with seven returning starters. Middle linebacker Kevin Mitchell is the hub. The defensive line is strong, if not swift, and will have to clog the Spartans' blocking scheme long enough for the linebackers to make tackles.

*

DE LA SALLE

ENROLLMENT: 855

COACH: Bob Ladouceur (214-14-1)

ALUMNI: Aaron Taylor (San Diego Chargers), Class of 1990; Doug Brien (New Orleans Saints) Class of 1989; Lonnie Toomer (New York Giants), Class of 1992

OFFENSE: The Spartans run the veer-T down their opponents' throats. Running backs Atari Callen and D.J. Williams have sports-car speed and the offensive line, while not big, blocks tenaciously. Quarterback Vinny Padilla, who runs well, doesn't throw often but usually doesn't have to.

DEFENSE: Concord prefers a 4-4-3 alignment. Speed, again, is the key. They tend to shed blocks quickly and then swarm to the ball. Because the offense scores quickly and often, opponents tend to pass against De La Salle in an effort to catch up.

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