Mater Dei wins Division 1 football title as controversy engulfs program

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Long Beach, CA - November 26: Mater Dei's Ajon Bryant (9) runs with the ball past Servite's Michael Hurst (2) for a touchdown during the CIF Southern Championship 11-man football division 1 championship finals in Veterans Stadium on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 in Long Beach, CA. (Kyusung Gong / For the LA Times)
Mater Dei's Ajon Bryant bursts past Servite's Michael Hurst for a touchdown Friday night at Veterans Stadium during the Southern Section Division 1 championship game. (Kyusung Gong / For The Times)

For 48 minutes Friday night, Santa Ana Mater Dei football players and coaches got a chance to focus on playing in a championship game rather than the commotion swirling off the field from a lawsuit filed earlier in the week by a former football player’s family alleging he suffered a traumatic brain injury in a locker-room hazing incident in February in which players punched each other.

Coach Bruce Rollinson has declined to comment and continues to act like it’s business as usual. There he was doing his pregame routine of rallying the players with his whistle blaring. Anyone worried about the team being distracted for the Southern Section Division 1 championship game against Anaheim Servite found out the Monarchs are on a mission for an unbeaten season.

Fueled by a relentless defensive effort, the Monarchs (11-0) won their eighth Southern Section championship under Rollinson with a 27-7 victory before 9,879 at Long Beach Veterans Stadium.

“I just won a CIF championship,” Rollinson said when asked about the roller coaster week. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Servite (10-3) was unable to generate a productive running or passing attack, a big change from its last meeting with Mater Dei on Oct. 23 in which the Friars lost 46-37 in a game filled with drama.

This time, Servite quarterback Noah Fifita found himself under constant defensive pressure. Sophomore linebacker Tanner Williams and senior linebacker David Bailey, who played with a heavily taped broken right wrist, each had two sacks. Junior linebacker Leviticus Su’a was creating havoc and stuffing runs. Cameron Sidney was given the task of covering standout wide receiver Tetairoa McMillan and more than held his own.

Mater Dei held a 14-7 halftime lead despite Elijah Brown having two passes intercepted. The first came on the first play of the game when Servite’s Zion Sims grabbed the ball after it caromed off two Mater Dei receivers. It set up a four-yard touchdown reception by McMillan, who had an interception in the second quarter.

The Monarchs regained their momentum by relying on their running game and getting an effective pass rush on Fifita. Quincy Craig had a three-yard touchdown run, and Ajon Bryant added a 27-yard touchdown run. Raleek Brown scored on a one-yard run late in the third quarter.

Raleek Brown finished with 164 yards rushing in 23 carries. Elijah Brown was 11-of-14 passing for 110 yards and one touchdown. Fifita was 10-of-22 passing for 86 yards and was sacked four times.

While another trophy will be added because of the Monarchs’ football performance, off the field the repercussions to Mater Dei’s reputation might continue to suffer following the filing of the lawsuit this week. The school’s president, Father Walter E. Jenkins, said in a letter to the community that “all aspects will be handled consistently and in accordance with the core values of our institution.”

On Thanksgiving, dozens of former Mater Dei players came to campus for an annual gathering to support the current team and greet Rollinson at practice. It was business as usual for Rollinson, in his 33rd season. But his future as coach could be in jeopardy considering that coaches have been ousted at nearly every level when a hazing incident is confirmed.

A husband and wife who came to the game to cheer on their nephew playing for Servite said before the opening kickoff they would have safety concerns following the allegations of the locker-room incident at Mater Dei.

“You’re the teacher. It’s your responsibility to make sure the kids are safe,” said the mother, who asked for anonymity because she is an educator.

“As a parent, I’d be concerned if this were going on and the school and administration is not handling it in a prompt way,” the father said. “Why was there not transparency?”

By winning, Mater Dei will advance to play in the CIF state championship Open Division bowl game on Dec. 11 at Saddleback College.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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