They rose up one by one, and when it was over, Santa Ana Mater Dei football players had every right to break out into a loud, joyous victory celebration Friday night after the Monarchs upset Moore League champion Long Beach Poly, 26-10, in a Pac-5 Division playoff opener at Long Beach Veterans Stadium.
"Defense wins championships, and we were rocking on the defensive side of the ball," Coach Bruce Rollinson said.
The Monarchs (7-4) intercepted three passes, two by safety Tyler Meglan, came up with three sacks and did just enough on offense to advance to a quarterfinal game against Santa Margarita Tesoro.
"We had to play great team defense and get 11 hats to the ball," linebacker Joseph Schmidt said. "We're a tough team when we play with emotion. Tonight, we played with emotion and you saw the result."
Corbin Anderson scored three touchdowns and rushed for 117 yards. Quarterback Max Wittek struggled in the passing department without his top receiver, Victor Blackwell, who didn't play because of a shoulder injury. Wittek completed seven of 14 passes for 63 yards.
But it was Wittek's running skills that keyed a 79-yard fourth-quarter scoring drive. He broke off runs of 11 and 16 yards. His one-yard touchdown run with 5:44 left gave Mater Dei a 20-10 lead.
In defeat, junior receiver Richard Smith was magnificent for Poly. He started the game with a leaping 49-yard catch. He had a 53-yard touchdown catch with 3:27 left in the third quarter that pulled Poly to within 13-10. He had five catches for 143 yards and three rushes for 33 yards.
But the Jackrabbits (8-3) made too many mistakes to win.
The first half was all about Poly miscues. Quarterback Chaiyse Hales was intercepted twice. Meglan's 55-yard return to the Poly 18-yard line set up the only touchdown of the first half, a two-yard run by Anderson that gave the Monarchs a 7-3 halftime lead.
This was a revitalized Mater Dei team after losing to Santa Margarita in a Trinity League finale.
"I challenged them to see if they could get their confidence back," Rollinson said.
Poly's offense couldn't sustain a drive, slowed by penalties and errors. Poly lined up in punt formation on fourth-and-two from the Mater Dei 31 late in the second quarter, then gave the ball to Keltain Malveaux, who was stopped inches short of the first down.
Poly's failure to execute on offense was reminiscent of the Jackrabbits' early-season troubles when they lost to Ventura St. Bonaventure and Mission Viejo by scores of 32-7 and 37-7. And it had to drive Poly fans bonkers seeing all that talent on offense unable to move the ball.
This was a game about tradition and history. There were big-time sports figures paying attention, including Heisman Trophy winners and alumni who have played in the NFL, NBA and major leagues. Once a Jackrabbit, always a Jackrabbit. Once a Monarch, always a Monarch.
Call it pride, call it loyalty, call it commitment, but anyone who has worn the green and gold uniform of Poly or the scarlet and gray uniform of Mater Dei feels a special obligation to give his best. It's expected.
This time, Mater Dei had more discipline, more patience and more toughness when it counted.