SANTA ANA — When Mater Dei won its Southern Section Division I-A boys' basketball championship last season, Shaun Jackson watched from the bench in a suit and tie.
Before the Monarchs' 65-59 victory over Edison in the Division I-A title game Saturday at Anaheim Arena, Jackson said: "I'm going to enjoy this one more because I'll be playing."
But Mater Dei didn't look satisfied with its ninth Southern Section crown in the past 12 seasons, and Jackson wasn't pleased with the team's performance.
Celebration was replaced by long faces.
"I played (terrible)," Jackson told a reporter after the game.
Such is life at Mater Dei.
In 12 seasons under Coach Gary McKnight, the Monarchs have lost only 27 games. Mater Dei is 31-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation by USA Today. Excellence is expected, from the players, coaches and fans.
So the Monarchs have their sights set above the section title--on a State championship--and they know they will have to improve their play if they want to challenge for another State title.
But Jackson is used to the challenge of improvement.
He played sparingly as a sophomore last season and was sent down to the junior varsity for the second half of the season.
"We had a lot of seniors last year," Jackson said. "I just wanted to play."
One senior was Jackson's older brother, Chris, who had signed a letter of intent with UC Riverside.
Shaun had to deal with playing in the shadow of Chris and his other older brother, Ray, a linebacker who signed to play football with Washington State.
But Shaun's hard work allowed him to blossom this season, and now McKnight compares him to former Mater Dei standout, Mike Mitchell. Mitchell also played basketball at Fresno State and Colorado State.
McKnight said Jackson has the same type of quickness and Division I college potential as Mitchell. Although Jackson has played primarily in the post this season, he should move to the wing next season with the development of freshman post players Chris Burgess and Mike Vukovich.
Mitchell's former teammate, Mater Dei assistant coach Tom Lewis, has helped to develop Jackson's skills this season. Lewis, who went on to play at USC and Pepperdine, was one of McKnight's first marquee players.
"Shaun worked his tail off in August and really benefited working with Coach Lewis," McKnight said. "He's just a 16-year-old junior, but he's shown more mental toughness this season. He's established his own identity and he's played very well."
McKnight pointed to the Tournament of Champions and the Orange tournament. Although overshadowed at times by his teammates--Arizona-bound guard Miles Simon, highly-touted freshman Schea Cotton, or sharp-shooting guard Clay McKnight--Jackson was selected as MVP of the Orange Tournament.
But Jackson said he felt he arrived in early December when the team traveled to St. Louis for a game against Chicago Mt. Carmel.
Mt. Carmel featured one of the most highly-touted players in the nation, 6-8 forward Antoine Walker, and Jackson held his own.
Walker, a McDonald's All-American, had 30 points and 12 rebounds to Jackson's 14 points and 11 rebounds. But the Monarchs came away with a come-from-behind 71-67 victory.
"That's when it turned around for me," Jackson said. "We kind of had a little fear going into that game, but we played our best, and we came out and won."
And with the State tournament beginning Tuesday and a possible meeting with Los Angeles Crenshaw looming, Jackson knows the Monarchs will have to be at their best.
Mater Dei and Crenshaw, the fifth-ranked team in the nation by USA Today, must win two games before the dream matchup could take place March 12 at Anaheim Arena.
"I think being ranked No. 2 in the nation, that's the highest we've been and we're proud of it," Jackson said. "But we don't just cherish that. We know we still have to come out and play hard."
And the Monarchs only have to look back to Saturday for a reminder.