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This could be a game-changer for Mater Dei
SANTA ANA – Everyone in the locker room paused as Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson entered the doorway. Well, everyone except for offensive lineman Sam Bush.
The 6-foot-4, 280-pound junior was too busy trying to win a talent show to interrupt his song-and-dance rendition of the Weather Girls classic, "It's Raining Men." Rollinson peered at his left tackle, shook his head and laughed, before continuing to his office. The players erupted.
Bush, the final contestant among a group that included comics and impressionists — Rollinson wasn't spared — was voted the winner.
Welcome to "hell week" at Mater Dei.
Never mind the grueling, two-a-day practices in the triple-digit heat of August. The Monarchs were having the time of their lives. Rollinson rewarded them at the beginning of training camp by giving back their posh locker room, this after locking them out of it the previous six months. A small group of veterans decided to conclude what had been an intense week by organizing a talent show.
"They just had fun," Rollinson said. "That was their energy. The whole concept of, We're a unit. We're one. We're a brotherhood. That became very important. It's what's been carrying us through the course of this season. But Friday night is about execution."
For Mater Dei (5-1, 1-0), a meeting with Santa Margarita (6-0, 1-0) on Friday is also about restoring order. The Monarchs are No. 3 in the county, No. 5 in the CIF-SS Pac-5 Division and No. 7 in the state, not too far behind the Eagles, ranked No. 1 in the county, division and state.
But in October, those are just numbers. Santa Margarita is the defending Pac-5 and Division 1 state champion. Mater Dei?
"We haven't been in a big game of consequence in awhile," said Rollinson, likening Friday's Trinity League matchup at Saddleback College to Mater Dei's Pac-5 semifinal game against Mission Viejo two years ago.
The gap is the result of a 4-6 campaign in 2011, Mater Dei's first losing season since 1981, and only the fifth since the program began in 1951. Rollinson, a Class of '67 alumnus, took over as head coach in 1989 and won five CIF titles in his first decade, establishing Mater Dei as a national power. No wonder an 18-16 mark and only two playoff victories over the past three seasons have led to a bit of an identity crisis.
The Monarchs made two notable changes this past offseason, hiring strength and conditioning coach Scot Prohaska and instituting a nutrition program. The team is off to its best start in five years, headed by one of the county's top defenses and a balanced offensive attack.
Rollinson knows many will be holding judgment until Friday on whether the Monarchs are truly back.
"I'm fully aware of those expectations and I'm glad we have the expectations," he said. "The (CIF-SS) finals are where we're supposed to be. A lot of kids worked hard for us to have those kinds of expectations. It's Mater Dei football."
That's where senior captain Thomas Duarte comes in. Duarte, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound receiver, linebacker and defensive end, is the latest in a long line of decorated players to don the Monarchs' three white stripes. When he hears Mater Dei football, he said he thinks of the tradition of "those great teams, those great players."
But that wasn't the conversation he was hearing about the program this offseason.
"It was kind of a slap in the face," Duarte said. "We have a lot of heart and drive and motivation to prove people wrong. We beat (Santa Margarita) last year and everybody thinks it's a fluke. This year we'll prove everybody wrong. Because we went 4-6 last year, people think it was a lucky game (because) we caught them off a bye. It really wasn't."
Luck doesn't aptly describe Duarte's play through six games either. He has been a full-time force on both sides of the ball, collecting 25 receptions for 463 yards and eight touchdowns on offense, and 20 tackles, six sacks and two interceptions on defense.
Rollinson called it a continuation of last year when Duarte persevered through the losing to blossom into both leader and star. Duarte's high work ethic — coupled with a team-first attitude — has allowed Rollinson to be more effective in challenging everyone else.
"He's the total package," Rollinson said of Duarte. "Athletically, he's in that freak category. When he's on campus, he doesn't have his chest out. He's not full of himself. The other attribute Thomas has is tremendous focus.
"When you have a Thomas Duarte, it just seems to quell some of the other wild dogs that you got mixed in there. They're not going to stray too far from the pack because he'll take care of it in a positive way."
It's why Rollinson didn't flinch when he initially caught wind of the talent show, which Duarte helped plan. Last month, the four-star prospect informed recruiters he won't visit any schools until after the season so that he can give his full attention to Mater Dei.
"The past three years here, the support system you get, the coaching, the family atmosphere, you come into your senior year, you feel like you owe it to them," Duarte said. "Our goal has been to win league."
What does it mean then that Servite and Orange Lutheran are down, and Santa Margarita quarterback Johnny Stanton is out?
"We look at it as an opportunity," Duarte said. "Our theme this year is climb the mountain. We're not really looking at Servite and OLu this week. We're focused on Santa Margarita. At this point, they're that next step on our way to the top. They're the real deal."
Let the real talent show begin.
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