LONG BEACH – They were matched up on the field like a couple of old kings jousting for old times' sake. Long Beach Poly and Mater Dei would have been the best game in the state a decade ago. Friday night at Veterans Stadium, they had to settle for the juiciest first-round game in the Pac-5 Division of the Southern Section playoffs.
There is plenty of pride at stake between these two programs, and that's what Mater Dei coach Bruce Rollinson appealed to after finishing the Trinity League season with a loss to Santa Margarita and a third-place finish. They responded with a big defensive effort in a 26-10 victory over Poly, the Moore League champion and the one of the most successful programs in the state.
A decade ago they had played each other in three consecutive championship games. Poly won in 1997, Mater Dei in 1998, and they tied in 1999. As recently as 2006 they faced off in the first round – a game won by Poly, 10-0. Mater Dei leads the series, 6-5-1.
“The legacy of both high schools is amazing,” said Mater Dei quarterback Max Wittek, who played a pivotal role with his feet more than his arm. “We respected them very much. I felt we came together. We made plays when we had to make plays.”
Mater Dei (7-4) played without Victor Blackwell (dislocated shoulder) and the offense played it close to the vest. The Monarchs led at halftime thanks to a pair of interceptions by Tyler Meglan, the second a 55-yard return to the 18-yard line that set up a tough two-yard score by Corbin Anderson with 40 seconds left in the first half.
“Honestly, it was a gift,” said Meglan, whose brother Derek Meglan, a linebacker, lost to Poly (8-3) in the playoffs four years ago and took this game personally. “John Tavarez covered the tight end perfectly. All credit to John. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Anderson carried 28 times for 118 yards, 89 in the second half, and scored on runs of two, one and 14 yards. His first wiped out Poly's early lead that came on a 36-yard field goal by Alan Roniss on the game's first series.
Twice Meglan's interceptions hurt ideal opportunities for Poly, whose drives began at the Monarch 48 and 47. Poly was most effective when getting the ball to Richard Smith. He made a brilliant catch on the opening drive for 49 yards, taking away a sure interception by Meglan, and he scored in the thired quarter on a 53-yard reception, but those were the only big plays for the Jackrabbits.
Poly outgained Mater Dei, 293-230; Mater Dei, which will play Tesoro, a 31-21 winner over fourth-seeded Bishop Amat, in the second round, gained only 62 yards in the first half, and in the game it was zero for eight on third-down conversions.
But three interceptions and three sacks helped Mater Dei stay in the game. It added to its lead in the second half. Miguel Sandoval's interception gave the Monarchs possession at the Poly 41, and though Wittek got 21 yards on a pass to Joshua Cook, it was personal foul inside the five-yard line after Poly had stopped the Monarchs on a second down play that proved pivotal. Mater Dei got a first down at the one, and Anderson scored for a 13-3 lead.
Mater Dei's defense allowed only two big plays, both to Anderson, who closed the gap to 13-10 with a 53-yard scoring reception.
Mater Dei put together only one sustained drive, in the fourth qurter when it went 79 yards on nine plays. Wittek was at his best – running, not passing – as he carried four times for 31 yards, including a sneak to make it 20-10.
“I challenged the kids last week, can you get your confidence back in five days? What do you want to be known for?” Rollinson said. “Defense wins championships and we were rocking on the defensive side of the ball.”
They'll get a chance to rock one more week. They will at least be remembered for that.
VIDEO interviews by 710 ESPN Radio's Beto Duran.
Mater Dei running back Corbin Anderson:
Mater Dei quarterback Max Wittek: