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HIGH SCHOOLS

He's passing the test

After hearing 'overrated' often this season, Barkley is a hot quarterback as the playoffs arrive for Mater Dei.

November 21, 2008|Ben Bolch | Bolch is a Times staff writer.

It sounded like an injury report.

"Barkley has been questionable" read the headline on the Internet message board thread pertaining to a certain USC-bound quarterback from Santa Ana Mater Dei High.

Yet the only thing battered and bruised was the reputation of Matt Barkley, who had been rated the top prospect in the country by Rivals.com after becoming the first player to win the Gatorade national player-of-the-year award as a junior.

"Is he still the No. 1 player with all the picks?" one poster asked on the message board.

"He may as well get used to the 'Barkley is overrated' posts now," advised another.

The criticism spewed into cyberspace after a loss to Huntington Beach Edison in early October, at a time when Barkley had nearly as many interceptions as touchdown passes for a team that was only one game above .500.

Things were so out of whack for the Monarchs that even the normally poker-faced Barkley began to express subtle frustration.

"Occasionally there was some body language and some things like that when things weren't clicking like he wanted them to click," said Barkley's father, Les.

Just when it seemed that the storybook career of the four-year varsity starter had veered irreversibly off course, Mater Dei played rival Anaheim Servite. Click. It played San Juan Capistrano JSerra. Click. And on it went in the Trinity League.

The inexperienced offensive line became a cohesive unit, the receivers who had run errant routes were in the right spots and the quarterback found his way as his team won a share of the league title.

Suddenly, the Monarchs (7-3) are among the most formidable teams in the Pac-5 Division heading into a first-round playoff game tonight at Santa Ana Stadium against Long Beach Jordan (7-3).

"The chemistry has been kind of different," said Barkley, who received special permission from the Southern Section to play as a 14-year-old freshman. . "But I think we've gotten better each week."

Barkley knew it would be hard to top a junior season in which he passed for an Orange County-record 3,560 yards and 35 touchdowns, raising hopes that Mater Dei had produced a successor to Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks John Huarte and Matt Leinart.

Barkley's success was partially the result of an experienced surrounding cast that included three offensive linemen bound for Division I colleges and receivers who had been together at the varsity level for two years. Of course, Barkley had something to do with it as well.

"The thing that in my mind sticks out about him is his arm strength, accuracy and ability to throw downfield," Los Angeles Jordan Coach Elijah Asante said. "He would have one of the top 20 strongest arms in the NFL if he was in there right now."

Barkley opened the season with a six-touchdown, four-interception performance in a triple-overtime win over Carson.

He had three passes intercepted during a loss to Corona Centennial and then struggled as the Monarchs fell behind L.A. Jordan, 20-0, before rallying for a 49-32 victory. The low point came during the loss to Edison, in which Barkley had no touchdown passes and two interceptions.

Five games into his senior season, Barkley had 12 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions.

"That was real frustrating," Barkley said. "I talked with the coaches, and there were things I could change and things the receivers and line could change. We just tried to simplify things to where I didn't have to take so many chances with the ball and force too many things."

Steve Clarkson, the quarterbacks guru who tutors Barkley, said Barkley refused to point the finger at anyone "other than to say, 'Let's get better.' "

"Had Matt hit the panic button any time, whether it was during the course of the summer or in the early season, we would have been a train wreck waiting to happen," Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said. "But he never hit the panic button."

Instead, Barkley repeatedly hit the rewind button while watching game film with offensive coordinator Dave Money every weekday during lunch. It was a routine Barkley had commenced well before winning any national awards and one he continued into his senior year.

"He always wants to improve himself," senior running back Jaron Hytche said. "After he gets all the awards, he still wants to get better."

Barkley's resurgence in league play -- he had nine touchdown passes and only three interceptions -- coincided with the emergence of Hytche, who averaged 154 yards rushing per game. Barkley has totaled 2,502 yards this season, giving him 9,096 for his career and moving him to within 87 yards of surpassing Todd Marinovich for the Orange County record.

Though he knows some don't want to hear it, Rollinson said the balance Barkley has struck in his life through his Christian faith helped him find the perspective he needed to persevere through difficulties on the field.

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