Mater Dei’s Thomas Duarte elevates game as a pass catcher

The jump ball has disappeared from high school basketball except for the start of each game, but if you want to see repeated jump-ball situations, go to a Santa Ana Mater Dei football game and watch 6-foot-3, 225-pound Thomas Duarte make defensive backs look helpless as they simultaneously go for the ball.

“I’ve been taught ever since I was little, every time the ball is in the air it’s mine,” Duarte said. “It’s my ball. Go up and get it no matter what.”

Every Mater Dei opponent plans, prepares and practices for the Duarte jump-ball situation, but somehow, he usually wins the battle.

That’s going to be one of the challenges for top-seeded Ventura St. Bonaventure (11-1) when it faces Mater Dei (10-2) on Friday night in a Pac-5 Division semifinal playoff game at Ventura High.

“You don’t want to get into a physical battle with someone who’s going to whip your butt,” St. Bonaventure Coach Todd Therrien said.


Duarte has caught 15 touchdown passes. Last week against Mission Hills Alemany, the Warriors thought their athletic defensive backs with outstanding leaping ability would be able to hold Duarte to a draw. It didn’t happen. He caught five passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns.

“They just threw it up to him,” Alemany Coach Dean Herrington said. “We had a couple good guys out there and he just outjumped for the ball. He’s physical, especially against high school DBs. He handles those guys. He has great hands.”

UCLA, USC, Washington and Notre Dame are among the schools vigorously recruiting Duarte, who also has nine sacks playing linebacker.

“You get the honor to coach kids like Thomas Duarte,” Mater Dei’s Bruce Rollinson said after the Alemany victory. “We’ve had a few where they want to take the football game over, and that’s what Thomas wants to do.

“He makes great plays on offense, but did you see the pressure he put on the quarterback play after play? When you have that kind of desire and that kind of will and if you can get the ball close to him, he’s going to find a way to make a great play.”

St. Bonaventure has its own tall, physical receiver in 6-4 junior Bryce Dixon, and it will be interesting if Dixon is assigned to cover Duarte on defense.

Mater Dei, seeded No. 4, didn’t make the Pac-5 playoffs last season, and in hindsight, Rollinson said, “Maybe that was the best thing that could have happened. It refocused everybody, recommitted everybody.”

Said Duarte: “We came together as a team. We set our goals and are determined to get them. The senior class has nothing but fight in them.”

The Monarchs have a good mix of veterans and young players, some of whom were members of an unbeaten freshman team last season.

The future Thomas Duarte is 6-2 sophomore receiver-defensive back Ben Humphreys, who’s averaging 19 yards a catch and has four touchdowns for the Monarchs.

But there’s only one Duarte, and to see junior quarterback Chase Forrest throw the ball up and dare a defensive back to outduel Duarte is quite a sight.

I’m only wondering why longtime Mater Dei basketball Coach Gary McKnight hasn’t asked to borrow Duarte for the opening jump ball.

“Football is his thing,” McKnight said.