2023 Mater Dei Team: Best Ever?
When Mater Dei demolished San Mateo Serra, 35-0, Saturday for the CIF Open Division title and probably a National Championship, long-time prep football followers tried to put the 2023 Monarch team into historical perspective.
Columnist Steve Fryer posed the question: Best Mater Dei team ever?
For the unitiated, this saying something for a school that has produced dominant players and teams for decades.
He then reviewed the team's significant 2023 resume
--This season’s Mater Dei team had a Mariana Trench-deep stable of talented receivers and running backs.
-- A huge and immovable offensive line was led by Auburn-committed tackle Deandre Carter.
-- A quick and effective defensive front, a fast and furious set of linebackers included Nasir Wyatt, maybe the best prospect on the roster.
-- A collection of defensive backs as good as any group from the past, plus it had the program’s usual strength at special teams.
-- It is a team that just won a state championship game with a running clock in the fourth quarter.
-- Frank McManus, a longtime Mater Dei assistant coach, took on a massive challenge this season when he replaced all-time great Bruce Rollinson as head coach. He’s a high-energy leader who got his team back on track after the shutout loss to St. John Bosco in October.
-- McManus proved with the Monarchs’ 35-7 win over Bosco in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 championship game and Saturday’s CIF State win that he was the right choice for the job.
-- Defensive coordinator Eric Johnson, with the Monarchs almost continuously since the 1990s, said the 2023 defensive unit is among the best he has coached.
-- Serra coach Patrick Walsh said Mater Dei’s defense is the best he has coached against in his 23 years in charge of the San Mateo program.
Impressive stuff, eh? But not so fast. Let's look back at the best Mater Dei players and teams, with commentary by Fryer:
Mater Dei’s 1960 team: It went 11-1 and won the CIF-SS major division championship. The quarterback was John Huarte, who played for innovative coach Dick Coury. Huarte would go on to win the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame, the first of three Monarchs to win the Heisman. The loss that year was to St. Francis 13-7. They rolled to a 32-0 win over Santa Ana Valley in the CIF-SS final.
Mater Dei’s 1965 team: Coury coached Mater Dei to another CIF championship and a 12-0-1 record. The tie was with St. Paul 20-20. Pete Sanchez was a CIF player of the year. Future Monarchs coach Bruce Rollinson was a player on that team.
Mater Dei’s 1991 team: Rollinson’s first CIF-SS championship team featured a great quarterback-receiver tandem, Billy Blanton and David Knuff. The Monarchs averaged 38 points over their four playoff victories. Rollinson was on his way to becoming a great high school football CEO, a master motivator who knew how to create and manage a terrific coaching staff.
Mater Dei’s 1994 team: Mater Dei’s first national championship team. The Monarchs went 14-0, including a 28-24 win over Los Alamitos in a semifinal game at Anaheim Stadium that drew 30,321. This team had some great linemen, including Joel “Bubba” Gonzalez and Matt Motherway.
Mater Dei’s 1996 team: The Monarchs capped a 14-0 season with a 17-10 win over Loyola in the CIF-SS Division 1 final at Loyola. Mike McNair was a big and speedy running back, Rod Perry the standout receiver and Kevin Mitchell was one of the better linebackers in the program’s history.
Mater Dei’s 1998 team: Say hello to Matt Grootegoed, who was Orange County’s best offensive player as a running back and the best defensive player as a linebacker. Mater Dei lost to a superb De La Salle team 28-21 for the only loss in a 13-1 season that concluded with a 33-26 win over Long Beach Poly in the CIF-SS Division 1 championship game.
Mater Dei’s 1999 team: Grootegoed, again. He won every award a California high school football player could win. Mater Dei tied Long Beach Poly 21-21 in the CIF-SS Division 1 final. The Monarchs were 11-2-1; the losses were to Clovis West and De La Salle early in the season.
Mater Dei’s 2013 team: The Monarchs went 11-3 and lost to St. John Bosco 34-7 in the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division championship game. But they had plenty of outstanding athletes, including defensive back Jonathan Lockett and defensive lineman Malik McMorris.
Mater Dei’s 2016 team: Mater Dei was 13-0 when it lost to St. John Bosco 42-28 in the CIF-SS Division 1 final. The quarterback was sophomore J.T. Daniels, who would go on to become one of the all-time greats at his position in county football.
Mater Dei’s 2017 team: This team won CIF section and state championships and was named national champion. Daniels was great at quarterback and was among 15 Monarchs who earned All-Orange County recognition that season. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Bru McCoy at receiver, Tommy Brown on the offensive line … this might be the best Mater Dei team.
Mater Dei’s 2018 team: This was supposed to be Daniels’ senior year. But he had changed his status the previous school year to senior, so he was gone. Bryce Young replaced him and led the Monarchs to CIF section and state championships, and they were named national champs again. McCoy had another spectacular year at receiver.
Mater Dei’s 2019 team: Mater Dei was 12-0 when it lost to St. John Bosco in the CIF-SS Division 1 final. Young was terrific at quarterback and Kody Epps had 93 receptions that season.
Mater Dei’s 2021 team: Mater Dei beat Servite 27-21 in the CIF-SS Division 1 final and San Mateo Serra 44-7 in the CIF State Open Division championship game. Elijah Brown had an excellent sophomore year at quarterback and Raleek Brown rushed for 1,123 yards.
Mater Dei’s 2022 team: Another undefeated run ended with a 24-22 loss to St. John Bosco in the CIF-SS Division 1 final. Elijah Brown had a great junior year, running back Jordon Davison had a great sophomore year and linebacker Levitius Su’a was county defensive player of the year.
Mater Dei’s 2023 team: There is such a thing as “recency bias.” That means the most recent anything one has experienced – concert, movie, meal, vacation – often feels like the best ever.
Fryer's final word: It’s always about how you play the day you play. If Mater Dei plays any of those Mater Dei teams of the past the way the Monarchs played two weeks ago when they beat St. John Bosco 35-7 and the way they played Saturday …In 2023, we saw Mater Dei’s best football team.
Well, let's check back next year.