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Mater Dei, LB Poly bring history, intensity
SANTA ANA – There is a large photo hanging outside Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson's office with all his players sporting championship smiles after a CIF title victory in 1998, Rollinson perhaps the most jubilant among them.
Hunched over in the bottom right corner is a stone-faced Matt Grootegoed, the young Monarch a pose away from passing out. His 33 carries that evening belied the pain of a separated shoulder, which later left him unable to hold up his two plaques for offensive and defensive player of the game.
"I don't think I'd ever been that exhausted," Grootegoed said. "I knew the importance of the game and what it meant."
The game is Mater Dei versus Long Beach Poly. The two powerhouses renew their rivalry Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division title game at Angel Stadium, marking the schools' 12th meeting in the past 25 years. Mater Dei leads the all-time series, 6-4-1, with all the meetings coming in the postseason.
This one means as much as any in the past 13 years, as it is their first finals showdown since they faced off in three consecutive CIF title games from 1997-99. Last Friday, the Monarchs had just boarded their bus following their victory against St. Bonaventure when they found out Poly had beaten St. John Bosco. The players quickly erupted.
"They know how intense it's going to be," Rollinson said. "They know what they're walking into. It's like the football gods lined this up to give everybody a heck of a football game."
The rivalry gradually built prior to the championship trilogy, with both teams claiming victories in lower-round battles. At a time when many were clamoring for a divide between public and private schools, then-Jackrabbits coach Jerry Jaso openly embraced every chance to play the Monarchs. Defensive back Darrell Rideaux took it a step further heading into the 1996 semifinals, calling Mater Dei receivers David Castleton and Rod Perry overrated.
"I said they had never faced athletes like Poly's," said Rideaux, Poly's first ever four-year varsity starter (1995-98). "That was the biggest mistake that I ever made in the paper."
The Monarchs destroyed the Jackrabbits, 42-13, in what is still the most lopsided contest in the series. Mater Dei won the CIF title the following week against Loyola and continued winning the following year, all the way until the division championship round. For the first time, it was against Poly.
The week of the game, Jackrabbits secondary coach Tim Richmond borrowed game jerseys from Lakewood, which donned a red similar to the Monarchs. Richmond, who would later coach at Mater Dei, put the scout team in the jerseys and put three stripes of tape on their helmets.
"It infused so much emotion out of us that we went crazy," Rideaux said. "It helped us overcome a psychological edge."
The Jackrabbits, behind the legs of Herman Ho-Ching, edged the Monarchs, 28-25, in the Coliseum. Rideaux, now a high school sports analyst for Time Warner and ESPN radio, believes the victory had an enduring impact on prep football in Southern California, as the Jackrabbits were the first public school team in four years to even appear in the D-I title game.
"We felt like we shouldered a lot of the responsibility of the public schools, that they had a chance against the private schools," Rideaux said. "It felt like David vs. Goliath. It had all those hidden innuendos, rich versus poor, public vs. private. For us to overcome all those obstacles and come out on top, it infused some hope into public schools around us.
"It changed the way kids thought. You don't have to necessarily go to a private school to find quality coaching and talent."
Rideaux said slaying the Catholic school giant might have caused some of his teammates to overreact, as a group of them took to destroying Mater Dei's arch of balloons immediately after the game.
"I think we ended up cutting them a check for the frame of those balloons," Jaso said.
Grootegoed, then a sophomore, took in the scene from afar, collecting every image to fuel what would be a long offseason.
"It was personal for me after what they did, absolutely," said Grootegoed, a linebackers coach at Orange Coast College. "We couldn't really do anything because they beat us. I wanted to play them again and I wanted to hit them in the face."
Twelve months later, there was "The Grootegoed Game."
The two teams met again in the 1998 finals at then-Edison Field, only this time Poly was the undefeated defending champion, winner of its past 27 games, and ranked No. 1 in the nation – Mater Dei's exact credentials a year earlier. The Jackrabbits returned most of their key players from the title team, including quarterback Chris Lewis, the Gatorade national player of the year.
"The only question was would we have the opportunity to play Mater Dei again," Rideaux said. "We thought our players were far superior. But lo and behold, you can never count out Bruce Rollinson."
Or Grootegoed. With fellow running back Junior Palacios sitting out because of an abdominal strain, Grootegoed was asked to shoulder an even bigger load than usual despite blowing out his shoulder. He rushed for 244 yards and two touchdowns and made several key tackles, including one on Rideaux during a kickoff return to save a touchdown.
The game still is frequently replayed on cable, stirring up memories of Grootegoed's teammates repeatedly lifting him up and dragging him back to the huddle after several late runs.
"He almost collapsed on the field," Rideaux said. "I've never been in a game where one guy single-handedly beat us, on offense, defense, and special teams."
Alas, the championship rubber-match ended in anticlimactic fashion as the two teams played to a 21-21 tie in 1999, leading to a split championship that left everyone dissatisfied.
"I didn't know what to do at the end of the game," Rollinson said. "Are you happy? Are you sad? I remember thinking we should just go out in the parking lot and finish this thing. It was this hollow feeling."
But a more fulfilling sentiment prevailed, the two programs having forged a deep mutual respect. In ensuing years, the two staffs could be spotted nearby the CIF offices at the Hof's Hut on Sunday mornings conversing before the playoff pairings were announced. Once, while participating in a passing tournament in Oregon, the two schools rode the same planes and buses, and stayed in the same hotel on the same floor.
"How many rival schools would do that?" Poly coach Raul Lara said. "I think that's what high school football should be all about."
Two years ago, Rollinson invited Rideaux into the Monarchs locker room during halftime of a game against Edison and, in the midst of motivating his team, singled out Rideaux as one of the best athletes he'd ever coached against.
The reverence was on display again Monday, as the players wasted no time socializing during the CIF championship luncheon.
"We're a lot alike," Rollinson said. "There's a good feeling between the schools. Now, at 7:37 p.m., you're going to ask two good coaching staffs and a lot of good players to fight as hard as they can, but you'll feel the respect.
"People know this is going to be pure, flat-out, great high school football."
Just don't call it a comeback. They've been here for years.