LONG BEACH – It was like the old joke about the two pass-rushers playing a Thanksgiving match against an equalized line.
“Let’s meet at quarterback,” they said to each other. “And come up with a wish.”
Mater Dei’s Tanner Williams and David Bailey kept meeting Servites Noah Fifita almost as soon as the broken football reached his hand. They had a lot of traffic with them.
When the Division 1 Southern Section final was over, Servite had a 28-yard touchdown drive and not much else. Mater Dei was able to win, 27-7, without a touchdown pass until Elijah Brown found CJ Williams in the corner of the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
It was the monarchs’ first CIF title since 2018, which for them constitutes a breach of famine.
But it also retained their chances of winning a tangible state championship and a mythical national title. It was also a massive contrast to their previous meeting this fall, a breathless 46-37 victory on October 23rd.
“I love our pass-rush,” cornerback Cameron Sidney said. “Our D-line is always rising, our inner linebackers are always taking over. I think all phases of our defense are on the same platform. And the attack helped us a little bit by hanging on to the ball like they did.”
Williams, a sophomore, had two sacks, and Bailey, a senior who played with a bandaged wrist, had one and a half. They had four solo tackles each. Fifita, who was as effective as running in Servite’s semi-final victory at St. John Bosco, won 25 yards but lost 44 while being fired four times and he threw only 86 yards.
Although Tetairoa McMillan had an interception for Servite and caught a 4-yard touchdown in the first quarter, he had to settle for eight catches and 68 yards. “Our job was to limit him to no catches,” Sidney said. “He got some, but we did a pretty good job of limiting him, and that’s one of the reasons we won.”
In the Oct. 23 match, which was so electric that it briefly knocked out the lights at Santa Ana Stadium, McMillan snatched 15 balls at 163 yards and Fifita hit 26 of 41 passes at 306 yards.
Friars tried to close the middle of the field against Brown and played “off” coverage to limit long strikes. The monarchs agreed with that. Raleek Brown toughened 164 yards on 23 balls against the lightweight defensive boxes and Ajon Bryant clicked from a 27-yard touchdown run. Elijah Brown passed just 14 times and his only 20-yard finish was the 27-yard touchdown for Williams in the end.
In the third quarter, Servite moved the ball 7 yards – backwards. Fifita struck a remarkable pass to Michael Welsh in the third quarter, but the referees’ flag showed how they did it. Welsh was off the field and returned to the catch, an illegal touch penalty.
“We put in a few new stunts for this game,” Williams said, “and from that point on it was just a matter of execution.”
“We changed some things, really tried to double the T-Mac more, but mostly the kids just came after it,” said Eric Johnson, Mater Dei’s defensive coordinator. “I thought we were really making it hard for them to drive.”
Yet Fifita’s bottomless spirit was not broken. In the fourth quarter, he got body tremors at every snap, and yet he converted a third-and-10 and then a third-and-19. A touchdown would have reduced Mater Dei’s lead to a touchdown with more than four and a half minutes left. Instead, Jeilani Davis picked up Fifita’s pass on the fourth and 10th.
Mater Dei last played in this match two years ago, led St. John Bosco 28-5 and lost 39-34. There was no chance of repayment in 2020 with COVID-19. The two played during the spring’s five games, and the Monarchs won it. Still, their hands itched for trophies.
“I do not even know how to explain how it feels,” Sidney said. “That’s all we thought about, after 2019, my second year. We did our thing during the five games, but we all felt like we should go back and get this.”
If the goal was to make this game as one-sided as the stadium they played it at, they did it too.