The victory had been safely tucked away in overtime by the last of Mater Dei High forward Schea Cotton's 29 points, and now Schea, a 6'5" sophomore, moved silently through a red sea of admirers in the Oakland Coliseum, parting the waters like the prow of a great ship. From beneath him somewhere, Schea heard a little boy's voice pipe up to ask where he was going to college. "I don't know," Schea replied in his own little boy's voice. "I've still got two more years of this!" This prospect made him roar with delight, and for the first time all night Schea let the braces on his teeth show.
Others may not have found it all so rollicking, for Schea had just overcome foul trouble to lead Mater Dei, a Catholic school of 2,100 students in Santa Ana, Calif., to its third state championship in 13 years, this one the product of a 71-67 OT defeat of Fremont High. Schea hit 11 of 13 shots and at one point in the second quarter put a move on a Fremont defender that left the kid so far behind that it looked like he might not graduate on time.
The big win by the Monarch boys last Saturday came only three hours after the Mater Dei girls' team lost its state title game 52-50 to Sacred Heart Prep on the same floor. But even though the girls failed to make it a clean sweep, the boys provided a nice bookend to a remarkable school year that began with the Monarchs' football team not only winning the California title but also finishing No. 1 in USA Today's national poll. The week that paper released its final high school football rankings, it also had the Mater Dei boys' basketball team rated No. 1 in the nation, the first time teams from the same school had occupied those two spots simultaneously. And just a few weeks after that, Mater Dei won the National Cheerleaders Association championship, its fifth such title in the past 10 years.
Unlike the leafy cloister of Sacred Heart Prep in old money Atherton in northern California, Mater Dei's campus is wedged like a cramp in the side of Orange County, in a neighborhood of working poor beset by the usual urban hazards. Yet while other schools struggle with declining test scores and a rising tide of violence, Mater Dei hums with the purposefulness of an urban hive.
The school's gym, which on Sundays doubles as a parish bingo parlor, houses the eight Monarch basketball teams, though lower-level teams are usually condemned to practice in a parking lot. The program's success helps explain why Schea transferred to Mater Dei midway through his freshman year from a nearby Catholic school, St. John Bosco, thereby becoming one of many prominent players whose transfers to Mater Dei have raised eyebrows over the years. Charges of recruiting have, in fact, been leveled at many Catholic schools around the country, particularly at powerhouses such as DeMatha in Hyattsville, Md.; St. Raymond's in New York City; St. Ignatius in Cleveland; and St. Joseph in Westchester, Ill., which achieved some notoriety in the critically acclaimed movie Hoop Dreams.
If there is something slightly unseemly about this business of enticing 14-year-olds away from other schools, it is worth noting that the attendant benefits to the kids often include—as in the case of Mater Dei—an education vastly superior to that generally offered by the public school system.
Mater Dei's preparations for its state championship doubleheader reached a fever pitch last Thursday during a pep rally in the Grotto, a courtyard where much of the school's spiritual business is conducted. The rally began with a prayer, followed by another, quicker prayer to Our Lady Queen of Victory, which came out sounding suspiciously like a cheer. Both the boys' and the girls' teams and their coaches were introduced, but only Father Steve Sallot—the school's rector—received a standing ovation.
Father Steve delivers the athletic prayers at Mater Dei, and occasionally they are rousers. "Obviously we don't pray for victory—we pray nobody gets hurt," says football coach Bruce Rollinson. "But Father Steve will usually slide in something like, 'Well, Lord, if you're going to pick a winner, pick us.' " This time Sallot simply pointed out to the deity that a double victory for Mater Dei "would be a victory for goodness and Christian values." Everybody said amen to that, putting aside for a moment the question of just what forces of wickedness Fremont and Sacred Heart had aligned themselves with.
"Everybody is feeding off of everybody else here," says three-point shooting specialist Clay McKnight, speaking both figuratively and literally, for he is the son of Mater Dei boys' basketball coach Gary McKnight. "I think the success of the football team makes us want to achieve what it achieved, and it really motivates our basketball team to see what the girls have done this season."
In late December the boys' team suffered a transforming two-point loss to Oak Hill Academy, a perennial power located in Mouth of Wilson, Va. "Losing that game to Oak Hill toughened us up and may have won the state championship for us," Gary McKnight said after Saturday's win. After beginning 1995 with a 57-point victory over Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Calif., the Monarchs went on to sunder their opponents by an average of 39.5 points in their final 12 regular-season games. Starting in January, Mater Dei won six times by 50 points or more, including an 83-33 pounding of Nogales in the sectional final, the largest margin of victory ever in a California Interscholastic Federation postseason game.