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Mater Dei still tops among marquee prep sports programs

Updated August 16, 2021 - 6:50 pm

For all the success Bishop Gorman has had in high school athletics, it lags behind Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California, in one respect.

Mater Dei has a sports information director. Gorman, and just about every other high school athletic program in the country, does not.

That wasn’t among the criteria that helped Mater Dei rank No. 1 in a pre-COVID survey of the nation’s top high school sports programs conducted by Niche.com, four slots ahead of Bishop Gorman at No. 5.

It was Mater Dei that halted Gorman’s 55-game football winning streak in 2017 with a 35-21 victory in a nationally televised clash of titans. It’s a game that Bruce Rollinson, Mater Dei’s longtime and effervescent coach, said changed the course of his program.

“It kind of took our program to where we say OK, we can go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the nation,” said the man with the gravelly voice and bushy white mustache who has been a fixture at Mater Dei for most of his 72 years, including the past 32 as head football coach.

With all due respect, Mater Dei had been a force in high school football decades before that ballyhooed game against the Gaels and a rematch the following year in Las Vegas that the Californians won 42-0.

But the Monarchs had set the bar so high that a drop-off was inevitable, forcing Rollinson to reassess his program and what it hoped to accomplish moving forward.

He said beating Gorman, a three-time mythical national champion, and schools of its ilk was a big part of that vision.

“When I revamped Mater Dei in 2012 I had a goal of developing a national power,” Rollinson said. “We were always good. We were always right there. We had had success. But we weren’t at the elite level. There was a whole series of things that had to be done in order to attract some more of the top players in (our) area.”

He said Mater Dei had started to build toward that, but when the Monarchs beat the Gaels, Rollinson knew the building blocks were once again in their proper places.

“With that victory we go ‘OK. We can play on this stage and not just once,’ ” he said in paying homage to Gorman.

Natural resources

Mater Dei has won seven California Interscholastic Foundation championships under Rollinson’s watch, with three state titles and mythical national championships in 1994, 1996, 2017 and 2018.

The Monarchs have been just as good in basketball, having won 32 consecutive league titles during coach Gary McKnight’s storied 38-year run and invoking another comparison to Bishop Gorman, which has won more state titles in basketball than in football.

“The difference is I play my games in a great stadium 10 minutes from the high school,” Rollinson said of 9,000-seat Santa Ana Stadium that opened in 1963 and served as the home of Cal State Fullerton football team before it dropped its program in 1992.

While impressed with Gorman’s football setup that includes a 41,324-square-foot athletic training center, Rollinson thought the visitors locker room was a bit cramped. Upon further review, he conceded the big squad he brought might have made it appear so.

“But it was air-conditioned, you know? All the kids that don’t play a lot wanted to stay right there (when the game started).”

Rollinson used terms such as “second-to-one” and “state-of-the-art” in describing Mater Dei’s on-campus facilties but said the land-locked campus cannot match Gorman’s idyllic setting on the edge of Summerlin.

“It’s awesome,” he said of the backdrop. “My fans were looking at the mountains and the sun going down and even my wife said there was a nice little breeze.”

Facilities are an important resource, Rollinson said about the blueprint for becoming a national power in high school sports. Private schools such as Mater Dei and Gorman tend to have tradition and a long and well-heeled line of supporters that combined with tuition revenues, gives them an inherent advantage over their public school counterparts.

“It helps that parents help swallow the (financial) nut,” Rollinson said. “But the No. 1 thing is you’ve got to attract players, and obviously do it in a legal way.”

Traveling cross-country by airplane to play a national schedule tends to attract dudes, as Rollinson refers to his best players. But try building a stadium with air-conditioned locker rooms and a scenic view of the mountains without first having a winning tradition or an administration devoted to one.

“It comes back to the people who are around you and their commitment to excellence,” Rollinson said.

Haters gonna hate

Rollison describes Mater Dei’s financial aid reserves as “tremendous” but adds that all students have access to the kitty, not just the ones who run the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds or can dunk a basketball .

”When they review (a financial aid application) they don’t know if it’s one of Rollinson’s guys or one of McKnight’s guys or a band member or just a student,” he said.

Roughly 50 percent of Mater Dei’s 2,150 students are on financial aid drawing from a fund of about $7.5 million that “allows us to be Mater Dei High School — a school that prides itself on diversification in all aspects,” Rollinson said. (A spokesperson said Bishop Gorman’s financial aid budget is only $1 million that is divided among a student body of 1,500.)

It also creates animus between the public and private schools and broadens the athletic gap between them.

Rollinson said winning often and winning big breeds contempt. At the same time, he believes a significant percentage of the student body is attracted to Mater Dei solely because of its athletic prowess.

Whereas the Monarchs play in a league against other private schools after focusing on national opponents in the early season, the lack of private schools in Clark County forces Bishop Gorman to compete against — and most often often beat up upon — public school rivals. This is when school board meetings sometimes become animated.

“In hindsight, when I went to high school (in the 1960s) they said we cheated, and we had open enrollment,” Rollinson said of a private school model that is prevalent from coast to coast.

“I’m firmly convinced that people who say they hate Mater Dei are always going to hate Mater Dei; and people who love Mater Dei are always going to love Mater Dei. And that there’s more love than hate.”

The same probably holds true for Bishop Gorman as well.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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