Mater Dei defeats St. John Bosco in defensive struggle

Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown is lifted in the air by offensive lineman BJ Tolo after rushing for a touchdown.
Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown is lifted in the air by offensive lineman BJ Tolo after rushing for a touchdown against St. John Bosco.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

It’s two hours before No. 1 takes on No. 2 in high school football. Two tickets were re-sold for $254.99 to enter Santa Ana Stadium on Friday night, and there’s an eerie quietness as players from top-ranked Santa Ana Mater Dei and Bellflower St. John Bosco listen to music on headphones, put on uniforms and start to dial in.

You sense the pressure, recognize the respect and feel the anticipation not only on the field but in the bleachers.

“It’s focus,” St. John Bosco defensive coordinator Chris King said.

Soon USC coach Lincoln Riley makes a sideline appearance. It’s clear this is no ordinary high school football game on a warm October night.


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The game turned into an old-fashion defensive struggle. Mater Dei prevailed 17-7, helped by a 22-yard field goal from Andre Medina with 7:10 left in the fourth quarter and a game-clinching 38-yard touchdown run by Jordon Davison with 1:01 left.

Elijah Brown improved to 24-0 as a starting quarterback. As usual, in the fourth quarter, he was Tom Brady-like. He made a critical 17-yard pass completion to set up the field goal while under intense defensive pressure.

“That was me improvising and trying to make a play,” said Brown, who completed 11 of 18 passes for 119 yards with no interceptions.

Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson said the game plan was to “pound the ball.”

“We thought we could run the football and we did,” he said. “Our front five did a great job.”

Davison rushed for 114 yards.

The first half turned out just as expected, two schools with great defenses not budging much. Mater Dei came away with a 7-0 halftime lead on the strength of a 99-yard, 14-play drive that ended with Brown’s nine-yard touchdown run at the outset of the second quarter.


St. John Bosco’s passing game was ineffective. Quarterback Pierce Clarkson was sacked three times. He also had a pass intercepted by Zabien Brown at the one-yard line to take away the Braves’ best scoring chance on their opening drive.

Clarkson didn’t play in the second half because of concussion protocols, replaced by junior Caleb Sanchez.

St. John Bosco finally broke through to tie the score at 7-7 on a fourth-down, six-yard touchdown run by Cameron Jones with 3:42 left in the third quarter. Jones finished with 108 yards rushing.

“We just didn’t make enough plays when it mattered,” St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro said. “We’re just going to have to get better.”

As good as both teams are on offense, defense wins championships and the early parts of this game showed off the defensive talent.

Ty Lee had a sack for St. John Bosco, blitzing from the secondary. Zeus Venegas kept playing like he was some Greek god, taking down Clarkson for a sack and also dropping him for no gain to deny him a first down. Mater Dei finished with four sacks.

“It was a great high school football game,” Negro said.

How did it come to fruition that unbeaten Mater Dei (7-0) and St. John Bosco (6-1) have pretty much separated themselves in Southern California high school football?

People seem to forget that Mater Dei went 17 consecutive seasons, from 2000 through 2016, without winning a Division 1 title. There were people calling for Rollinson to be let go, that his time had passed.

The Monarchs saw the rise of St. John Bosco under Negro and adopted many of his strategies, starting flag football teams for non-high school kids as an introduction to their school while welcoming talent far from Orange County. Vans started picking up athletes along the 91 freeway corridor. The Braves and Monarchs didn’t become good with only first-stringers, their second-stringers and depth propelled them to another level. Rebuilding years never happen anymore because transfers arrive when needed.

The Southern Section can see what these two all-star teams have become with sold-out crowds for their regular-season meetings.

A likely meeting in the Division 1 final is set for Nov. 25 at the Rose Bowl, so who knows how many fans that game could draw if it’s a rematch. They’ve met for the Division 1 title in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

“Hopefully we get to see them again,” Negro said.

Mater Dei’s victory puts the Monarchs in the driver’s seat to win the Trinity League, claim the No. 1 seed for the Division 1 playoffs and avoid playing Corona Centennial, perhaps the third-best team in Southern California, in the semifinals.

One big remaining question is how many teams will be part of the Division 1 playoff bracket. Last season in its first under a new competitive equity format that places teams based on their season instead of past performance, there were eight teams. Could there be four teams, eight teams, 12 teams or 16 teams this season?

“We don’t fill brackets,” Southern Section spokesman Thom Simmons said. “We create brackets based on competitive equity. In football, that’s dictated on final CalPreps points. We won’t know those final points until after Week 10.”

Meanwhile, Mater Dei and the Diocese of Orange still have not answered questions regarding a school-wide safety assessment that was authorized by the former school president following a lawsuit filed last November by the family of a former football player alleging a culture of hazing in the football program. A spokesman for the Diocese of Orange said earlier this week that the safety assessment, in its 11th month, “is still in progress.”

Rollinson told the Orange County Register this week that he plans to return as coach in 2023 and new president Michael Brennan endorsed the move even though the safety assessment has not been completed.