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Mater Dei Hoping to Hold Up Its End

Monarchs usually beat all comers, but their 'rivalry' with Concord De La Salle has been a trifle one-sided, in the Spartans' favor. The teams meet again Saturday.

September 21, 2000|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The series that supposedly matches the best high school football teams from Northern and Southern California is three years old now, but it could barely be called a rivalry.

What was expected to become a marquee matchup hasn't been worthy of top billing. Santa Ana Mater Dei, its winning tradition notwithstanding, has become just two more digits in Concord De La Salle's national-record 102-game winning streak.

The first time the teams met, in 1998 at Edison Field, the Spartans pulled out a close game in the fourth quarter, 28-21. Last year at University of Pacific in Stockton, De La Salle routed the Monarchs, 42-0.

While the hype has understandably waned, mutual respect still applies as the series is renewed Saturday night at Edison Field.

"This is definitely our biggest game of the season," said De La Salle quarterback Matt Gutierrez, who shredded the Mater Dei defense last year for 300 yards and six touchdowns. "This is definitely our biggest challenge."

Said Mater Dei quarterback Matt Leinart: "We've been preparing for this game since last spring."

The teams' first meeting came close to living up to expectations. De La Salle needed a 58-yard run on third and 32 to set up the victory.

But last year the Monarchs committed seven turnovers and De La Salle delivered perhaps the most embarrassing loss in Bruce Rollinson's 12-year reign as Mater Dei's coach.

"It's not really a familiar position with me, people coming up and saying, 'Well, the boys tried hard,' " said Rollinson, whose teams have lost six games since 1993. "I'm not into trying hard."

Neither team appears to have lost a step from last year, when De La Salle finished--what else?--unbeaten and Mater Dei rebounded from its meltdown against the Spartans to share the Southern Section Division I title with Long Beach Poly. Both teams are 2-0 and coming off convincing victories.

But because of the lopsided nature of last year's game, and De La Salle's winning streak, few outside the teams' camps appear to be giving the Monarchs much of a chance Saturday.

Even on the Mater Dei campus, where optimism is as abundant as oxygen, there is doubt. Leinart has heard words of encouragement from classmates, but he's also heard the painful phrase, "You guys can't beat them."

That suits Rollinson just fine.

"I believe I have a free shot," he said. "I don't think there's a whole lot of people out there who think we can beat De La Salle. What do I have to lose? Some national rankings that are mythical at best?"

De La Salle is ranked No. 1 in the nation by USA Today. Mater Dei is No. 8. Terry Eidson, De La Salle's defensive coordinator, said the teams might be even closer than that.

"This is not a mismatch," Eidson said from his home in Concord, where De La Salle is holding evening practices this week to combat 100-degree heat. "It's going to be a dogfight down to the wire. We're going to approach this like any of our championship games of any kind.

"Our kids are pretty savvy as to understanding who their tough competition is. Mater Dei is our biggest challenge every year."

Which doesn't explain the score from last year.

"We never believed that we were six touchdowns better than them," Eidson said. "They had a lot of turnovers in that game. We had D.J. Williams [now at Miami, Fla.] as a huge running threat. They wanted to make Gutierrez win the game and he did."

In a performance that Rollinson said made him "eat my words for nine months," Gutierrez, then a sophomore, completed three of his six touchdown passes to wide receiver Demetrius Williams. Both players are back this year.

Rollinson had told his players before the game, "We have to stop D.J. We have to stop the option. A sophomore can't beat us."

He could and he did, putting a big dent in Mater Dei's confidence in the process.

"I was just embarrassed we didn't play football like we can," Mater Dei linebacker Ian Gunderman said. "We didn't play Mater Dei football. We just went out there and got killed."

Rollinson has formulated a new game plan this time, and there are reasons to think Mater Dei can win. Unlike last year, when he split time with Matt Grootegoed, an improved Leinart will be the full-time quarterback. An experienced and opportunistic defense returns mostly intact, and the linemen are Bunyanesque as always.

"I think they're a little better than last year," Eidson said. "They lost Matt Grootegoed, but they've got a little more quickness, a little more speed on their defense and their offensive line has been their strength. I always wonder where they get those huge guys year in and year out."

Rollinson simply wonders how De La Salle seems to dominate all comers.

"I've thought about this game since I walked out of that God-awful humid-filled stadium in Stockton," he said. "I would be lying if I didn't say it sticks in my craw that I'm 0-2 against them. I have spent a lot of hours thinking about last year, watching the tape, trying to understand what it is that De La Salle has that's causing us to struggle.

"Really, it's become a chess game for us. Normally, we're a big-time football team. Against them, we haven't exhibited it."

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