February 25, 2024

Calling all psychologists. Perhaps there’s an easy explanation how a team that loses the first football meeting always seems to win the second in the annual high school football showdowns between Mater Dei and St. John Bosco.

A month after looking confused and uninspired while being shut out 28-0 in a Trinity League loss to St. John Bosco, Mater Dei came to the Coliseum on Friday night and got sweet revenge, returning two interceptions for touchdowns to win the Southern Section Division 1 championship with a 35-7 victory over the Braves before 11,622.

“I don’t know what it is,” Mater Dei defensive back Chuck McDonald said. “I just feel the team that loses has nothing to lose and wants it more.”

Last season and in 2019, St. John Bosco won Division 1 titles after losing to the Monarchs in league play. Give credit to first-year Mater Dei coach Frank McManus. He made changes with his coaching staff after the Oct. 13 defeat, becoming more engaged in his team’s defense during games. And, boy, did the Monarchs deliver on Friday night.

“We had everyone back,” McManus said. “Everyone made the commitment to play whether dinged or not.”

One of the most important players was defensive tackle Jesus Venegas. He missed much of the first meeting with an injury. St. John Bosco had trouble blocking him this time, and the Braves finished with only 29 yards rushing.

The play of the first half, and the entire game, was the acrobatic, athletic interception by linebacker Abduall Sanders of Mater Dei that resulted in a stunning 51-yard interception return for a touchdown with 2:12 left in the first quarter. St. John Bosco quarterback Caleb Sanchez appeared to have an open Cameron Jones coming out of the backfield. Sanders came charging forward, leaped up in front of Jones, made the interception and took off toward the end zone.

“I saw Cameron coming out on a route and just read it,” Sanders said.

It was an important momentum changer, because St. John Bosco had been moving the ball during much of the first 10 minutes. That 7-0 lead gave the Monarchs defense confidence and allowed a stagnant offense time to find its way. The lead reached 14-0 at halftime after Jordon Davison‘s 10-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

“It was huge,” receiver Marcus Brown said. “It changed the momentum of the game.”

The problem for St. John Bosco was an inability to run the ball effectively (minus one yard rushing in the first half), something the Braves did well in the first league meeting. Mater Dei’s offensive line also started to create just enough room to allow the offense to move the ball.

Mater Dei took a 21-0 lead on a 44-yard touchdown catch by Kayden Dixon-Wyatt. St. John Bosco finally scored late in the third quarter on a one-handed 17-yard touchdown catch by Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa that cut its deficit to 21-7. The Monarchs recovered a fumble by Peyton Woodyard trying to make fair catch on a punt with 11:53 left. Then came a 14-yard touchdown catch by 315-pound sophomore Tomu Topui to clinch it for Mater Dei, followed by an interception return for a touchdown by Zabien Brown.

Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown did what he does best — win. He’s now 41-2 as a starting quarterback.

There’s a group of St. John Bosco and Mater Dei players who can say they were part of a historic two-year run, getting to play consecutive championship games at the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum, Southern California’s two iconic stadiums with more than 100 years of football history. Coming out of the tunnels, looking up at the scoreboards, glancing around the seating, those are memories never to be forgotten.

Still to be played for Mater Dei (12-1) is one final game on the schedule on Saturday, Dec. 9, likely at Saddleback College in the CIF state championship Open Division bowl game. Serra High in San Mateo is expected to be the opponent with an official announcement on Sunday. Serra (12-0) lost to St. John Bosco 45-0 in last year’s game and lost to Mater Dei 44-7 in 2021. The Padres are supposed to be better this season, but most think the No. 1 team in the state was decided at the Coliseum on Friday.

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