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High School Sports

Column: Mater Dei-St. John Bosco showdown: Thank the lawyers for it

Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young finds running room against St. John Bosco during their Trinity League game last season.
Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young finds running room against St. John Bosco during their Trinity League game last season.
(Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

Let the hype and excitement begin. Unbeaten Santa Ana Mater Dei (8-0) and unbeaten Bellflower St. John Bosco (8-0), ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation, are set to play Friday night in a much-anticipated, nationally televised Trinity League game.

For one week, USC, UCLA, the Rams and Chargers will take a back seat to high school football.

It’s the fourth consecutive year these two have separated themselves from the 414 other football-playing schools in the CIF Southern Section. St. John Bosco defeated the Monarchs in the 2016 Division 1 final, and Mater Dei defeated the Braves in the last two finals.

How did this domination happen? Credit great coaching, great players and great administrative support, but you can also thank lawyers for helping ignite the current state of affairs.

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In November 2012, the Diocese of Orange and Mater Dei reached agreement to settle a 2-year-old lawsuit against the Southern Section that alleged unfair treatment and discrimination against Mater Dei athletes.

“This was never about money,” Mater Dei’s attorney, Jerome Jackson, said at the time. “It was about fairness.”

The Southern Section had declared ineligible a Mater Dei football player and water polo player, both of whom had transferred. More than $109,000 in attorney fees was spent by the CIF in defending the Southern Section. The settlement launched an all-out CIF retreat.

Sherman Oaks Notre Dame has lost six starters to season-ending injuries but the Knights keep on winning, the latest being against Los Angeles Loyola.

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Among the consequences: Months earlier, in an effort to reduce legal fees, the CIF went from a one-year sit-out period for transfers who had not moved to about one month. It helped reduce appeals for hardship waivers, saving more money. Later came removal of language designed to prevent athletes from transferring for sports reasons. All changes were approved by membership schools.

Also affecting the environment was pressure from the state legislature to encourage school choice among parents. The CIF didn’t want the legislature to intervene, so rules were loosened.

What it has led to is Mater Dei and St. John Bosco engaging in an all-out race for talent that has left everyone else far behind. As one football fan wrote on Twitter, “USC and UCLA problem is, they don’t recruit as good as MD and St. John Bosco.”

Roger Blake, the former executive director of the CIF, said, “I used to worry about the coaches recruiting. I don’t think it’s as big an issue anymore as parents recruiting and parents shopping. It has created super programs.”

Southern Section commissioner Rob Wigod insists he does not believe the lawsuit settlement was “connected in any way” to the rise of Mater Dei and St. John Bosco. “The Archdiocese of Orange County lawsuit was focused on the concept of athletic motivation as an aspect of CIF Bylaw 510,” he said in an email. “They believed there was an inconsistent application of that provision in that bylaw and felt it should be eliminated.”

But the transfer changes have clearly opened the door to super teams. Mater Dei, which went 17 consecutive seasons without winning a Division 1 title until 2017, has won the last two bolstered by players from all over Southern California. Transfers have filled key spots after the Monarchs took in an all-star group of freshmen in 2016 from the Inland Empire and elsewhere.

St. John Bosco was the first to come up with the idea of making inroads to youth football players by holding camps and creating seven-on-seven youth teams. Mater Dei eventually adopted the St. John Bosco model. Distance is no longer an obstacle for players, who are traveling more than one hour from their neighborhood schools. There are van pools, ride-sharing services, metro trains and hitching a ride with assistant coaches.

In simple terms, they’ve become all-star teams that are no longer capable of being upset. Mater Dei used to occasionally lose to Carson, La Puente Bishop Amat and Mission Viejo. That will not happen now. The Monarchs and Braves have assembled elite coaching staffs with top assistants and the kind of roster depth that keeps them successful in spite of injuries.

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This is the state of high school sports. There will be a sold-out stadium Friday night. The Fox Sports West commentators will be gushing about the college-level talent on the field. Fans will debate who’s No. 1, then look ahead to the rematch on Nov. 30 in the Division 1 final at Cerritos College.

Then everyone can turn to basketball, where two-time defending CIF Open Division state champion Chatsworth Sierra Canyon has five transfers to replace last year’s starting lineup that featured five transfer students.

Hail the lawyers, because they helped create the super team era.


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