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Mater Dei Finally Opens a Venue to Match Its Victories

Stuck with puny sports facilities for years, the Santa Ana high school has a big new complex.

September 22, 2006|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana has long been one of the state's perennial athletic powers. But the Roman Catholic school never had a place to display its prowess -- the tiny gymnasium wasn't big enough to hold a regulation-size basketball court, much less hang 60 championship banners.

This week, the school's teams will move into a facility that would be the envy of some colleges: an $18-million athletic and aquatic complex. A three-court gymnasium will seat 3,200 fans, four times what the 50-year-old gym held, while a 12-lane pool gives the school's swimming and water polo programs their first aquatic facility.

Mater Dei's athletic center debuts just months after one of its parochial school rivals, JSerra, opened a $10-million sports complex in San Juan Capistrano. Santa Margarita High, another Orange County Catholic sports power, has just begun building its first aquatic complex.

As money pours into high school sports facilities, it has created a fevered competition for such athletic showpieces. Some college athletic officials say it's becoming harder to tell high school and college sports complexes apart.

"Just as there's been an arms race in Division I college sports, you're starting to see a trickle-down to the high school ranks," said Tim Pruess, athletic director at Concordia University in Irvine. "Mater Dei and JSerra are two high-profile programs, and part of their goal is to attract the best athletes. Facilities are obvious tangible evidence of their commitment to athletics."

Mater Dei football coach Bruce Rollinson acknowledged that his school had fallen behind in that race.

"We've had the prestigious academic and athletic programs, but everybody always used our 50-year-old facility that was falling apart at the seams against us," he said. "We definitely had a chink in our armor. But they can't throw stones at us anymore."

Pete Manarino, athletic director at JSerra, agreed that the stakes in high school athletics had been raised.

"It's becoming like a business, a very competitive one," Manarino said. "These places are starting to look like college campuses. But it becomes a vicious circle after a while. If you don't keep up with it, you fall behind."

Mater Dei's athletic center is part of a $60-million campus makeover that began in 2000 with a new chapel and campus ministry and includes an academic center, library and baseball stadium. The face-lift will be complete in a few years when a $20-million performing arts center is built.

School President Patrick Murphy said the remodeling was being funded by the school's yearly auction and private donors, some of whom had each given over $1 million.

The pool opened last week and has already had several water polo matches. The girls' volleyball team has been practicing in the impressive 52-foot-high gymnasium and played the facility's first game Thursday night against Los Angeles Marymount.

Mater Dei senior volleyball player Mallory O'Dorisio said she still hadn't adjusted to her spacious new surroundings.

"Compared to our old place," she said, "it feels like you're playing in the Staples Center."

Boys' basketball coach Gary McKnight was so excited to move into his new digs last week that he began showing up for work at 6 a.m.

McKnight, who has led Mater Dei to 19 regional titles in 24 years, said his team's fans may benefit the most from the new facility.

Mater Dei's following has grown so large that the team has been forced to play its home games at high school and college arenas throughout Orange County.

"We've had one home game in three years," he said. "We don't get the students coming to the games because they never know where to find us. Already, we've had some 700 students sign up to be in our rooting section."

And last week, for the first time in 41 years, Mater Dei held its first all-school indoor pep rally. Because of limited space in the old Monarch Pavilion, pep assemblies were held for one class at a time.

"It was a pretty amazing feeling," said Rollinson, a 1967 Mater Dei graduate who has guided the varsity football team since 1989. "Before our team entered the gym, the hallways were vibrating with noise. And when those doors flew open, it was a pretty special moment for some of us old guys."

The football team carried that emotion into its game that night, knocking off higher-ranked Mission Viejo High for the first time in six years.

dave.mckibben@latimes.com

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A new place to play

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An $18-million athletic and aquatic center opened this week at Mater Dei High School. The 68,000-square-foot complex is part of an expansion that began in 2000 with the chapel, followed by a library and academic and academic services center in 2002. In the future: performing arts center.

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Source: Mater Dei High School

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