Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana has a long-standing tradition of academic and athletic excellence, but school officials now are trying to restore that favorable reputation. In recent years, the co-educational parochial school has been scrutinized by Orange County public school administrators and even the Catholic Athletic Assn., of which Mater Dei is a member, for alleged unethical practices by its athletic department.
"I know our image isn't great right now," said Father John Weling, Mater Dei's president. "It really bothers me, but I don't quite know how to go about changing it. I'm open to ideas."
Mater Dei's image has taken a beating since the school accepted the transfers of cousins Leland and Derek Sparks, senior football players who left Montclair Prep in Van Nuys and came to Mater Dei on a wave of controversy in September.
The Sparkses were top football players at Montclair Prep last year, leading the team to a 12-1 record and to the semifinals of the CIF Southern Section's Division IX playoffs. Leland plays quarterback-wide receiver and Derek is a running back, considered one of the top college prospects in the Southland.
But the cousins, originally from Wharton, Tex., had problems at Montclair Prep and left the school one game into this season.
Although the Sparkses did not do well academically last year at Montclair Prep, they were admitted to Mater Dei only two days after they had applied on Sept 5.
Derek started practice upon enrollment and played in his first game two weeks later. Leland recently was granted a fifth year of eligibility--he repeated his junior year at Montclair Prep--and played in his first game last Saturday. Both players are on academic probation, meaning that they have one semester to improve their grades to maintain eligibility.
"Mater Dei immediately opened itself up for a lot of criticism when it accepted the Sparkses," John Johnson, principal at Brea-Olinda, recently told The Times. "When you read that three different transcripts were produced in order to get the students eligible, you start to wonder.
"The public perception was to question the ethics here."
Said Lyle Porter, Mater Dei's principal: "We accepted these students because they met our admission requirements. I don't think any other school would have turned them down, either. We followed the rules.
"Derek and Leland weren't accepted based on their athletic abilities. They came knocking on our door. We didn't seek them out. We had openings and they qualified, so they were admitted. I'm glad they're here. If this situation came up again, we'd handle it the same way."
The Sparkses' admission to Mater Dei quickly caught the attention of Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas. One day after the Southern Section Executive Committee had granted Leland a fifth year of eligibility, Thomas inquired into the admission policy at Mater Dei. He found nothing amiss.
He said later, however: "Mater Dei could have improved its image in the Southern Section if it had turned those two kids away. That would have showed the public school principals (Mater Dei's) academic commitment if they had turned them away."
A positive image is important to Mater Dei. The school has expressed interest in joining a public school league when the Southern Section begins releaguing procedures later this year for the 1992-93 cycle.
Mater Dei now competes in the Angelus League, which is made up entirely of Catholic schools. Although Mater Dei would like to maintain its parochial school rivalries, it also would like to reduce travel costs and missed class time. Incidents such as the transfer of the Sparks cousins, however, make public school principals wary of Mater Dei. Since Mater Dei is private, it has no attendance boundaries. Many top athletes who don't live in or near Santa Ana attend Mater Dei.
"Public school leagues have explicit recruiting rules so they can't get kids from other schools," said Peter Hartman, superintendent of the Saddleback Valley Unified School District. "An athlete can't arbitrarily go where he wants. But parochial schools don't play by those rules. So it's not fair competition. It's like saying the Raiders can only recruit in Southern California, while the other NFL teams can recruit nationally.
"Sure Mater Dei says it doesn't recruit, but we employ all kinds of people who used to work for them and they say it does go on. The coaching circle is pretty small and things slip out. And you know kids; they always talk."
Mater Dei has long been a basketball power and occasionally excels in football, which may partially explain the resentment by public schools. Controversial transfers, however, probably have increased that resentment: