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Column: A look back at the Southland’s remarkable 2021 high school football season

Gardena Serra coach Scott Altenberg, left, and quarterback Maalik Murphy.
Gardena Serra coach Scott Altenberg, left, and quarterback Maalik Murphy celebrate with smiles after Division 1-A state championship.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

In the middle of a pandemic, in a time of intense political and social disagreements, and during a period when many families were suffering emotionally and financially, the 2021 high school football season somehow was completed Saturday night.

It was 16 weeks of uncertainty, 16 weeks of hope, 16 weeks of trusting coaches, parents and school administrators to complete their assignment of making sure teenagers experienced a return to normalcy.

Nothing came easily and nothing came without choices. There were interruptions, starts and restarts, successes and failures. Yet the bottom line is that the season happened, playoffs took place for the first time since 2019, and players were allowed to create memories that will last a lifetime.

The top four teams to start the season never changed except for the order: Santa Ana Mater Dei, Anaheim Servite, Bellflower St. John Bosco and Corona Centennial.

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The biggest development was Servite ending the St. John Bosco-Mater Dei Division 1 domination by reaching the championship game. St. John Bosco had made the final every year since 2013.

New playoff formats in the Southern Section and the City Section did not go off without controversy and will need adjustments, but the idea of putting together brackets based on the current season is here to stay. The culture change of playoff matchups based on competitive equity and not geography or enrollment is also here to stay. The challenge will be making sure a computer’s algorithm doesn’t prevent putting together accurate, fair matchups.

The best part of the season was seeing individual players rise up beyond expectations.

Who saw Servite two-way lineman Mason Graham becoming the best at his position with 14 sacks and providing the blocks to turn loose quarterback Noah Fifita and receiver Tetairoa McMillan?

It was fun to recognize a freshman doing great things for his neighborhood school. Defensive end Weston Port of San Juan Capistrano San Juan Hills delivered 12 sacks.

Who wasn’t impressed that cornerback Jaden Mickey of Corona Centennial started the season as a 16-year-old senior and ended it as a Notre Dame signee. Take that, you holdbacks.

It wasn’t hard to root for linebacker Braydon Brus of Glendora. He stayed at his neighborhood school for four years, stayed with his commitment to Northwestern and ended his senior season with 125 tackles and close to 1,000 yards rushing. He exudes loyalty and commitment.

You have to admire sophomore quarterback Elijah Brown of Mater Dei. At a school that now has produced three quarterbacks who became Heisman Trophy winners, Brown is 17-0 as a starting quarterback and never seems to be ruffled during games. He’s so even-keeled and has so much self-confidence that he can be anything he chooses.

Arlis Boardingham of Lake Balboa Birmingham deserves a standing ovation for making it through four years at the same City Section school. Most believed he wouldn’t stay because he had become too good. Yet he chose to remain with his friends and achieved everything he wanted — two City championships and a college scholarship.

There were once-in-a-decade performances by teams. Panorama City St. Genevieve, Simi Valley and North Hollywood Campbell Hall went unbeaten during the regular season. Woodland Hills Taft went from having a 26-game losing streak to winning a City Division III championship.

There was wildness. Crenshaw had to pull out of the playoffs because it didn’t have enough vaccinated players on its roster to continue under a Los Angeles Unified School District mandate.

Inglewood had one of its best teams in years but made the unwise decision to go for a two-point conversion with a 104-0 lead against Morningside and have its quarterback pass for 13 touchdowns in a 106-0 victory. Yes, that got national attention and started a debate about what high school sports are supposed to be about.

Then there’s Mater Dei and its off-the-field issues. The school decided to hunker down and do basically nothing despite two lawsuits that have raised questions about accountability for alleged violent behavior on the football team. A school commission is supposed to investigate the safety practices of the athletic programs. Meanwhile, the school and Diocese of Orange decry media coverage, leaving people with the perception that winning championships is the biggest priority. Patience has run out. The school can either act to fix its lack of transparency or suffer a slow, inevitable decline in community and public confidence.


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