Swanson: Mater Dei-St. John Bosco deserved the hype

SANTA ANA — Jim Hill was there. That’s your first and surest sign that a sporting event happening in Southern California is a big whopping deal.

And Friday’s high school football game between St. John Bosco and Mater Dei – the Nos. 1 and 2 ranked teams in the country – deserved the presence of the venerable KCBS-TV sports broadcaster.

It was a riveting and responsibly played clash, and a rare challenge relished by both programs – two of the most successful talent hoarders anywhere in the modern high school game.

This game – a 17-7 victory for Mater Dei – was broadcast nationally by Bally Sports. Shoot, even the kids in Bosco’s band were fired up for Friday’s big gig, another sure-fire indicator of how much it meant, band director Ramon Villanueva said.

Joining Hill and a large contingent of media at Santa Ana Stadium was a sellout crowd of 9,000 family, friends and fans – including several hundred hyper, hyper-partisan students.

With an assist from that band, which sounded good and looked good in its blue-and-October Pink (for Breast Cancer Awareness Month) attire, the Bosco student-fans – many of them shirtless, many of them with chests and cheeks painted in Braves blue – were the more consistently rowdy.

But the deep red Mater Dei student section had the last word after Jordon Davison put away the game with a late 38-yard touchdown run: “Na-na-na, goodbye” they sang before breaking into the chant: “Put your shirts on!”

Those Mater Dei kids had raced to line up at lunchtime this week for one of the 400 free tickets allotted to them in order to see their classmates take the turf live Friday. The limited number available, water polo player Ryan Diaz said, made for a pricey resale market for those student-specified tickets – up to, in one case, $200, he heard. His buddy, swimmer Jacob Alvo explained: “To know that your friends are on the national level … that’s insane. They’re the best of the best. It’s almost like being a celebrity.”

With fans like Taegan Maysami and Lucas Kim collecting autographs on the game program afterward and 11-year-old aspiring Bosco quarterback Vaughn Davis III in the stands studying the movements of his pal, current Braves QB Pierce Clarkson, it was that type of event that would have been worthy of the SoFi Stadium stage – what might have been if Mater Dei (7-0, 2-0) had wanted to play where the NFL’s Rams and Chargers do.

TBD on how many future NFL players took the field Friday – though we can say definitively that 70 have already landed at least one FBS offer – on a night when the temperature remained mostly in the low-70s. A mild October evening in Southern California, which has become the undisputed home of the nation’s best high school football.

The Monarchs – who won a state title last year as controversy swirled over a hazing scandal – have this season already beaten Utah’s West High, 42-0, and toppled Hawaii’s Mililani High, 42-7. Bosco had similar results against its out-of-state foes, including traveling to Texas to rout Allen High, 52-14, before dismantling Portland’s Central Catholic, 49-0, in a game played at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.

There was nothing mild about Friday’s Trinity League tug-of-war, which eventually went to the defense featuring a guy named Leviticus (Su’a) and another called Zeus (Venegas).

Maybe the best defensive player and leader in OC football, linebacker ⁦@_leviticussua_⁩ of ⁦@MDFootball⁩ ⁦@ocvarsitypic.twitter.com/1qjIdGk1Dz

— Dan Albano (@ocvarsityguy) October 8, 2022

They helped limit Bosco (6-1, 1-1) to 261 yards of offense while collecting four sacks and pitching a shutout on third downs, when the Braves were 0 for 6.

It was a punishing defensive performance on a night when the game was both graceful and violent. At least three Bosco players had to be tended to by medical staff after being injured, including Clarkson, the quarterback. The senior suffered a concussion in the first half and returned to the sideline after halftime having replaced his helmet with a towel, his expression forlorn.

The Bosco staff appeared to be running him through a series of cognitive tests, but it was clear even then that he wasn’t touching the turf again Friday.

Never mind that this was 1 vs. 2. That it was Mater Dei. That USC coach Lincoln Riley was among the college representatives who made an appearance on the premises.

The NFL might want to take notes.

“A player’s health is a lot bigger than winning a high school football game,” Bosco coach Jason Negro said. “I mean, we’re gonna make the good decisions, we’re gonna listen to the experts. And because of what has happened in the NFL (where changes in concussion protocols are on tap following the injuries suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa), it’s heightened our awareness.

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“I’m proud of my medical staff, I’m proud that we took the child’s health and safety over the fact of putting him in and risking him in the game.”

These are, after all, children – even if they don’t play like it.

In the moments before his 24th game as Mater Dei’s starting quarterback – and his 24th victory – Elijah Brown was stone-faced, serious, all business. The last time the Monarchs lost? To Bosco, in the 2019 CIF-SS Division 1 championship game, pre-Elijah Brown.

And once the game began, he stayed typically composed against a talented Braves defense that bent just slightly more, allowing touchdowns only with 1:01 left in the fourth quarter and early in the second, when Brown ran right on third down for a 9-yard touchdown that capped a 14-play, 99-yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes of game clock.

Afterward, Brown looked younger, wearing a wide smile and saying all the right things – a real pro, this junior QB: “It feels great, but it’s a team effort. I wouldn’t be here without the team.” And, yes, “it’s definitely fun having games like these, it’s very exciting.”

USC football coach Lincoln Riley chats with St. John Bosco coach Jason Negro before the big game against Mater Dei. pic.twitter.com/6KFmlI8e1c

— James H. Williams covers UCLA football (@JHWreporter) October 8, 2022

Quite a scene at tonight’s –er, last night’s — Mater Dei-Bosco showdown. Taegan Maysami and Lucas Kim were making an investment for the future, you might say, collecting autographs from the all the stars of the show. pic.twitter.com/BYjOcLVYjr

— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) October 8, 2022