The CIF state championship Open Division football bowl game will be played on Saturday night at 8 at Cerritos College. As expected, Concord De La Salle will represent Northern California. But the big surprise is Santa Ana Mater Dei earning a spot in a championship bowl game for the second consecutive season representing Southern California.
That’s because the Monarchs stunned unbeaten Bellflower St. John Bosco 17-13 in the Southern Section Division 1 final on Nov. 23. How did it happen? How could the Monarchs limit the Braves’ high-scoring offense to a single touchdown on their opening series?
St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro said he noticed very few strategic changes made by the Monarchs since they lost to St. John Bosco 41-18 in a league game on Oct. 13. There were a couple of personnel changes Mater Dei made because of injuries, but the big difference was Mater Dei being able to keep the Braves off the field through ball possession.
“The biggest change was they slowed it down,” Negro said. “They were methodical. They took the game plan we did in 2016 that kept JT Daniels off the field and it worked. They kept DJ [Uiagalelei] off the field. The thing that was frustrating was what we did to let it happen. There were six times we had devastating penalties that extended drives.”
Mater Dei’s time of possession was an astounding 31 minutes, 37 seconds compared to St. John Bosco’s 16 minutes, 23 seconds. St. John Bosco ran off just 15 plays in the first half of a 7-7 tie. The Braves never got another offensive touchdown after Jude Wolfe caught a TD pass on their opening possession.
“It was very uncharacteristic of how the season went,” Negro said of his team’s mistakes. “That’s the beauty of sports and why you play the game.”
One of the reasons Mater Dei won was the play of tight end Michael Martinez. He caught all five of his passes for 86 yards in the first half to keep the Monarchs close and take pressure off receiver Bru McCoy, whom St. John Bosco decided to double team.
“We put a big emphasis on double covering Bru and not let him beat us,” Negro said. “It left us a little exposed.”
In the second half, McCoy caught the tie-breaking touchdown. Thanks to the Braves having to pay attention to Martinez, McCoy had his opportunity to come through.
And yet, St. John Bosco got back into the game with a fourth-quarter blocked field goal with 10:12 left in which Chris Steele made the block and Trent McDuffie ran 74 yards for a touchdown. St. John Bosco missed the conversion kick, and that was a key moment in the game. Being down one point instead of tied was a psychological blow.
“All of a sudden, even after that amazing play, we’re down one,” Negro said. “It was very deflating. It was a frantic moment. There’s a lot of ball game left. We suddenly have all the momentum. You look up at the scoreboard and we’re still losing. One point makes a big difference.”
Overall, Negro said, “It was just a weird night. We couldn’t get any rhythm. We had so many uncharacteristic penalties that devastated us. Even on an interception we get a chop block. It was freaky.
“I was so proud of my kids. We fought and clawed. It was almost like a pitcher who doesn’t have his best stuff. He throws 120 pitches and is still battling. We got the ball back with 40 seconds left. That’s how hard we played and still had a chance. They won some one-on-one battles. In the first game, we won every one-on-one battle.”
Negro said, “I’d love to play them a third time.”
Unfortunately, he’ll have to wait until next October in a Trinity League game and maybe the playoffs. The two teams have played three consecutive seasons in the Division 1 final. Mater Dei is 2-1.