Maybe there is something to that parochial school argument.
Last year, Mater Dei's overall excellence in sports translated into The Times Orange County All-Sports award.
After two-thirds of this year's prep sports season, the Monarchs are again the highest-scoring large school in Orange County.
But clipping at Mater Dei's heels comes a bit of a surprise--Santa Margarita.
"The public schools are going to love that," Santa Margarita Athletic Director Rich Schaaf said.
Santa Margarita, a parochial school that opened in 1987,, has become a serious player for the first time in The Times' competition, which awards points based on performance and counts boys' and girls' sports equally, regardless of the sport.
And now, Santa Margarita is in second place--its highest position in the three-year-old competition--after strong showings in boys' basketball and both soccer programs during the winter sports season.
And here's a tasty tidbit: the Santa Margarita girls' soccer team was ranked No. 1 in the Southern Section (Mater Dei was second), lost and tied its final two Sea View League games to effectively lose the No. 1 seeding, then lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs (just like second-seeded Mater Dei).
If the Eagles had reached the final and picked up the accompanying 16 playoff performance points (instead of eight for reaching the quarterfinals), Santa Margarita would be in first place and Mater Dei would be second.
The all-sports competition is designed to identify the county's best all-around athletic programs in two enrollment classes, large school (1,275 or more students) and small school (fewer than 1,275). Santa Margarita is the smallest of the large schools with 1,280 students.
At the end of the school year, the totals for the fall (six sports, 240 points), winter (five sports, 200 points) and spring (10 sports, 400 points) will be totaled to determine champions in both divisions.
In the small-school category, Brea Olinda (216.2 points), which had the highest scoring average of any school (23.9 of a possible 40 points per sport) this winter, surpassed five teams to take the lead. Brea is in perfect position to win the title but was in the same spot last year, when it also leapfrogged five teams to take the lead going into the spring, only to be surpassed by Laguna Hills at the end.
Laguna Hills outscored Brea by 56.8 points last spring and won the title by seven points, moving from fifth-place to first. This year, Laguna Hills (186.3) is in third place and needs to make up only 32.5 points. Good position? You bet.
"[Winning last year] made quite a stir in the community," Laguna Hills boys' Athletic Director Dave Brown said. "I was even a little surprised at how much significance it had. The calls and comments. . . . the booster meetings took note of it, the city council sent us a big letter of congratulations.
"You tend to get worked up in your own little area [as a coaching staff], and I think there was a general feeling of a job well done by all the coaches. It gives you a chance to pause and appreciate the whole instead of just the part."
Santa Margarita was in third place after the fall sports grading period, and is second now with 226.7 points. Mater Dei (233.9) was in fourth place after the first scoring trimester, but was catapulted to first with Southern Section championship appearances in boys' and girls' basketball.
Last year, the Eagles were in third place after the winter and finished 14th overall among large schools. In the first year of the competition, they were in 13th place (131.0) after two-thirds of the year and ultimately finished fourth among small schools.
"This is just an unusual year for us--last year we weren't that good," Schaaf said. "I think we're a typical school. We'll fluctuate according to the quality of the class. A normal high school fluctuates. Some years it will be Capistrano Valley, sometimes it will be Irvine. There are the exceptions, of course--some schools are always at the top . . . quality of coaching, whatever--people can speculate."
Yes, people speculate. And Schaaf says the stigma attached to the parochial schools is undeserved--at least nowadays.
"Yeah, [the stigma] bothers me," he said. "The way CIF has its Blue Book now, I believe everyone plays by the same rules. The big difference between us and public schools is we get more parent involvement, and that comes because they're paying [directly] for their kids' education."
But that involvement, at least for now, doesn't guarantee Santa Margarita any success beyond this year, Schaaf said.
"Our first-string kids are good, but I think we're a few years away from having any real depth," Schaaf said. "I think numbers are the difference when you're looking at schools like Los Alamitos and Esperanza, who are always up there at the top. Then those schools have a combination of good coaches, good kids, parent involvement, facilities, supportive administration and faculty.