It's winning time at Mater Dei.
When it's that time of year to hang Christmas lights and pick all-league football teams, folks around Mater Dei High School usually start thinking about victory. With a capital B. As in basketball.
But there's another team at Mater Dei that knows a little something about winning.
The boys' soccer team is starting the new season more convincingly than it finished the last one. And last season was about as good as they get.
Last season, the Monarchs finished 24-2-2 and were the Southern Section 4-A co-champions, tying West Torrance, 1-1, in the final.
But this season Mater Dei, which is ranked first in the 4-A coaches' preseason poll, seems determined to win a championship outright. In their first five games the Monarchs have outscored opponents, 23-0.
It's not really much of a surprise. After all, the key figures have returned from the championship team.
First, there's Jake. Well, really his name is Chris. Jake is just the team nickname for Mater Dei's center fullback Chris Mastropaolo, last season's defensive player of the year in 4-A.
Mastropaolo doesn't really know why he's called Jake. But, hey, it's a pretty good nickname for a good, solid player who contributes on offense and defense with a great attitude that coaches love.
Besides, Jake is a lot easier to pronounce than Mastropaolo.
A three-year varsity starter, Mastropaolo is the conductor of the defense that has produced five-straight shutouts. Mastropaolo leads the Monarch's man-to-man defense, marking the opposition's main scoring threat, the center forward.
Mastropaolo was surprised last season to be recognized as defensive player of the year. But along with his hard-working defense, he also scored 10 goals, which he figures got the attention of the award voters.
"Last year went way beyond my expectations," Mastropaolo said. "But this year, those are my goals, to be the defensive player of the year and for the team to win the 4-A."
One of Mastropaolo's teammates won't be caught off guard when the spotlight hits him, though. That would be X, otherwise known as forward Paul Oldham, a member of last season's all-Southern Section 4-A first team.
Oldham knows exactly why his nickname is X.
"Because I'm a marked man this year," Oldham said. "I'm going to score so many goals."
No idle threat, this. Oldham has already scored 14 of Mater Dei's 23 goals. And he has had four three-goal games.
Last season, Oldham had 41 goals. This season, he's shooting for 60. Before he came along, the school season record had been 17.
"Oh, I'll do it," Oldham said. "Because of Sam George. He's the best halfback in the county, he has so many assists."
George, named to the all-Southern Section 4-A second team last season, is another returning player from Mater Dei's championship team, along with forward John Coggins, who has scored four goals this season.
So, it's no surprise Mater Dei is dominating both halves of the field. You've got your hot-shot scorers, your great assist man, your heads-up defense. And then you've got the Young Guy by the Bench who brings it all together--Coach Curt Bauer.
After a victory, the other team's players come up to Bauer, 22, to congratulate him. Not necessarily for his great coaching. As he stands on the sidelines in a sweat suit, he looks like one of the players.
When Bauer and his team boarded a bus to go to a tournament recently, a bus driver waiting to start the engine said to Bauer, "When is your coach coming?"
Sure, Bauer looks young. After all, it was just five years ago that he was playing soccer at Mater Dei himself, when the Monarchs were an average team. Last season was Bauer's first as a head coach.
And he walked away with the Southern Section 4-A coach of the year award.
Bauer's players say they like him because he's young and they can relate to him. Bauer likes his players because they score lots of goals and don't let the other guys score any. But, still, he's worried.
"It's a frustrating situation," Bauer said, looking less than frustrated. "I don't really know how good we are. We beat the other teams, but I don't know if we're that good or they're not that good. I'm afraid the first goal we give up might crush us."
Hey coach, don't lose any sleep.
"They're very good," said Brea-Olinda Coach Manny Toledo, whose struggling team lost to the Monarchs, 5-0. "Curt Bauer is a very good coach. They're definitely one of the teams to beat in the 4-A."
And the Mater Dei players are starting to think the unthinkable.
"I think we might be better than the basketball team," Mastropaolo said. "They're good, but not great. But we think we can take the Southern Section this year."
Before you accuse Mastropaolo of blasphemy, don't forget that the Mater Dei basketball team lost two games over the weekend. And the soccer team won two.