Mater Dei wins state title as hazing controversy hovers over program

December 12, 2021
Mater Dei's Cooper Barkate sprints to the end zone to score a first-quarter touchdown.
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MISSION VIEJO, Calif. – The celebration began long before the game clock had expired, and maybe it was joyous enough for the Mater Dei High School football team and its fans to forget about weeks of controversy. 

If only temporarily. 

Allegations of hazing hover over the program that once again showed it is among the most dominant in the country. 

The outcome never was in doubt for Mater Dei, the football powerhouse from Southern California that on Saturday won the CIF open division state championship with a 44-7 victory over Junípero Serra High School of northern California.

Mater Dei quarterback Elijah Brown connected with wide receiver Cooper Barkate on a 78-yard touchdown on the Monarchs’ first possession at Saddleback College Stadium and never looked back.

By finishing the season 12-0, the Mater Dei Monarchs likely secured the top spot in the final USA TODAY Sports Super 25 high school football rankings of the season for the fifth time since 1994. That would tie the school with De La Salle of California for most season-ending, No. 1 finishes since the rankings began in 1982. 

As if that weren’t reason enough for the Monarchs and their fans to rejoice, Mater Dei alum Bryce Young, now the starting quarterback at Alabama, won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday

Young became the school’s third alum to win the Heisman Trophy, with quarterback Matt Leinart having won in 2004 when he was playing for USC and quarterback John Huarte having won it in 1964 when he was playing for Notre Dame. 

But there are still the serious allegations. 

On Nov. 23, details of the alleged hazing surfaced publicly with an Orange County Register report detailing a fight in the Mater Dei locker room. It was part of a hazing ritual at the Catholic school that in February left one of the players with a broken nose and brain injury, the Orange County Register reported. 

A lawsuit filed by the family of the injured player named Mater Dei and the Roman Catholic Church of Orange, California, as defendants and alleged that Bruce Rollinson, the football team’s head coach since 1988, knew of the longtime hazing ritual called “Bodies.’’

Mater Dei players lifted Rollinson onto their shoulders in celebration after the game Saturday. But the coach, whose record improved to 329-86-2 with the victory, declined to answer questions from reporters.  

After Rollinson walked away from reporters, he directed his team through the program’s signature “Pride Drill.” 

“You have children who have been violently hurt and the reaction of this institution is let’s keep paying and try to get our championship and we’ll maybe convene another investigation,’’ said Michael Reck, an attorney representing the player injured in the alleged hazing incident and the player’s family. “Not let’s pause, let’s get this coach off of here, let’s assess the safety of all the kids. It is keep going, look for that championship, win at all costs and if anything is a problem, it’s cover it up at all costs.’’ 

Mater Dei has pledged to commission an independent firm to investigate the safety practices of its athletic programs, the Orange County Register reported. Orange County District Attorney Todd Frazier has declined to prosecute the matter. 

“There is not a single shred of evidence to show that this was anything other than a mutual combat situation with two willing participants who traded blow for blow, including repeated punches to each other’s heads,’’ Frazier said in a statement. “That does not make it acceptable. But it is not a crime.’’ 

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Onward the Mater Dei football team has marched, beating Servite High School, 27-7, on Nov. 26 to earn a spot in the CIF open division state championship against Junípero Serra of San Mateo, California. 

After the victory over Servite, Rollinson was asked about his emotions in light of the turbulence sparked by the allegations of hazing.

“I just won a CIF championship,” he told reporters. “It doesn’t get any better than that.” 

And then it did.

On Saturday, after the 78-yard touchdown pass, Mater Dei converted a fumble and an interception into touchdowns and added a field goal. The Monarchs also staged a goal-line stand in the final seconds of the first half and led 24-0 at the intermission.

Essentially, all that was left was the celebration and likely settling into their final resting place: atop the USA TODAY Sports Super 25 high school football rankings.

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