BELLFLOWER, Calif. — The scent of seared carne asada wafted through the parking lot on a Friday evening last month at St. John Bosco High, an all-boys school tucked in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County.
An overflow crowd of 6,000 — some hanging over railings, others sitting on $75 end zone bar stools with table service — packed into Panish Stadium, a $7.2 million football stadium with a state-of-the-art video board. A machine spewed fog, lights flashed and a D.J. cranked Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” as the home team, in its glittering metallic gold helmets, charged through an inflatable tunnel and onto the field.
All of it was the preamble to another spectacle: a clash between two teams, St. John Bosco and Santa Ana Mater Dei, that are making high school football look more and more like the Division I college game.
The two Catholic schools, rivals in the Trinity League, have split the last four state championships in California’s top division, and each has won two mythical national titles in the previous eight seasons. But this rivalry stands out for another reason: St. John Bosco and Mater Dei are locked in an arms race to garner the best high school players from one of the country’s most fertile talent pools. The quaint ideal of suiting up for a neighborhood school has given way as some players make hourslong commutes to further their football ambitions.
Sylvia Mapuoletuli, left, and Fane Sitanilei set up St. John Bosco balloons at a tailgate outside the high school.
These two football programs — with their ballooning coaching staffs, cutting-edge weight rooms, nationally televised games against out-of-state opponents, prolific fund-raising and nonexistent attendance boundaries — are so attractive to recruits because when Mater Dei and St. John Bosco play, pretty much anyone who steps on the field will one day become a college football player.
The schools have sent 130 players to Division I colleges over the last five years, according to MaxPreps, a website that covers high school sports, and more than 60 players on this year’s teams have offers to play in college — from Army to Alabama. Neither team has lost to another California school since 2015.
Kevin Pearson, the coach at Warren High in Downey, two miles up the road, was asked if his team, which went unbeaten in the regular season with one of the top junior quarterbacks in the country, Nicholaus Iamaleava Jr., could compete with St. John Bosco or Mater Dei.
Pearson laughed. He said he’d had eight players transfer from St. John Bosco in the last two years. None had started at St. John Bosco, but seven started for him. “Does that give you a good idea of what would happen?” he said.
The concentration of talent in two Catholic schools 24 miles apart mirrors what has happened in college football, where name-brand powers are no longer content to recruit in their backyards — and where the talent gap between a handful of perennial playoff teams and everyone else is becoming a chasm. According to the database of the recruiting site 247Sports, more than half the nation’s five-star recruits in the last five years (82 of 163) have signed with four colleges: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson.
“What you’re seeing in Southern California is the exact same thing,” said Jason Negro, the coach at St. John Bosco.
This migration to St. John Bosco and Mater Dei has been driven in part by parents who are willing to explore any avenue to help their children — particularly if they show signs of being elite athletes. But these two schools will also go to extraordinary lengths to woo prospects. They have created pipelines to youth football programs, offered increased financial aid, built active social media channels and, in Mater Dei’s case, provided vans that shuttle players through the rush-hour freeway crunch, west to Los Angeles and east to Riverside County.
“This is basically a college football program in high school,” said C.J. Williams, a senior wide receiver at Mater Dei who has committed to Notre Dame.
Earnest Greene III, a senior offensive tackle at St. John Bosco who has taken recruiting visits to Georgia, Ohio State and Texas in recent weeks, cited an example. “When we’re installing plays, we might watch film of how Alabama ran it,” he said, aware that his coaches have open invitations to sit in video rooms of the top college programs during the off-season.
It wasn’t always this way.
A little more than a decade ago, St. John Bosco was at a crossroads. Enrollment, which had peaked in 2001, had plummeted by one-third to fewer than 700 in the midst of the Great Recession. “We were on the ropes,” said Paul Escala, who was hired as St. John Bosco’s president in 2010 and is now the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
The school decided football could be its salvation.
Escala asked the alumni to bet on a vision of St. John Bosco as a college prep school — in the arts, academics and athletics. It would rely on data to target students who could afford a premium education and would be more strategic in delivering financial aid. “That was music to my ears,” said Negro, who was hired months before Escala.
Negro’s model mirrored that of a college program. He ramped up fund-raising, established passing league programs (60 percent of the Braves roster are alumni) and “jumped two feet in” establishing a talent pipeline from youth tackle football programs. After just four years, the Braves, led by quarterback Josh Rosen, a future first-round N.F.L. draft pick, went 16-0, won a state title and were crowned national champions.
A sign of how things had changed came when Negro’s phone rang at the team banquet after that season: The caller was a high school quarterback from Florida who was interested in transferring.
Now the Braves play most of their nonleague schedule against teams from outside California. They have traveled to Hawaii, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida and Washington D.C. in recent years, and this season visited Chesapeake, Va., where they throttled Oscar Smith High, the top-ranked team in the state, 49-0.
As St. John Bosco began its ascent, Bruce Rollinson, the coach at Mater Dei, feared becoming a dinosaur. Now 72, Rollinson is a gravel-voiced, sharp-tongued throwback. He still requires his players to arrive at the start of training camp with a buzz cut — or their teammates will do the shearing for them. On game days, players wear dress shirts and ties to school.
In 2011, Mater Dei missed the playoffs for the only time in Rollinson’s 33 years as the head coach. Though quarterbacks still showed up at the school every summer — John Huarte and Matt Leinart would go on to win Heisman Trophies in college — burly linemen and tackle-busting running backs no longer did.
“I thought if I’m going to ride this thing through, I need to make some changes,” Rollinson said. He brought in a nutritionist, and a committee raised money for everything from equipment (the Monarchs have four different uniforms) to air travel (they opened this season at Duncanville, Texas) and increased scholarship aid. And a coach once dismissive of technology turned loose his daughter, Catherine, who is his chief of staff, to build a presence on social media. Mater Dei football’s Instagram account now has more than 33,000 followers.
“When people see something with Mater Dei on it, unfortunately they don’t say, ‘Oh, that’s that academic school’ or ‘That’s the great performing arts school,’” said Rollinson, who played at the school in the 1960s. “They say, ‘That’s the football power.’ I needed to get the brand out there.”
The Monarchs rebooted and were contending for titles again, but they couldn’t get past St. John Bosco. In the midst of six consecutive losses to their rival, Rollinson called Negro at the end of the 2014 season. “He just said, ‘Listen, how are you doing it?’” Negro said.
Rollinson’s takeaway was that Mater Dei needed to immerse itself in the world of youth football. That meant adding mostly younger assistants who could oversee passing league teams and develop relationships with youth football coaches who — as in the world of grass-roots basketball — can influence where elite players go to school.
Among those he added to his coaching staff was the Mater Dei alumnus Pat Dubar, a pony-tailed former punk rock singer who upon returning from living in Sweden co-founded the OG Ducks, a powerhouse youth football program in Riverside County. His title, along with linebackers coach, is director of player personnel.
“When you lose big to Centennial and Bosco, you see these guys on the other team and it’s like playing Alabama,” Dubar said, referring to Corona Centennial, which had knocked Mater Dei out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons. He added, “I can bring in those players.”
The next season, a freshman quarterback, J.T. Daniels, now at Georgia, and a sophomore receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, now with the Detroit Lions, were among the new arrivals who would eventually help Mater Dei win back-to-back national championships in 2017 and 2018. They both had played for the Ducks.
When Daniels graduated high school a year early, Bryce Young, now at Alabama, transferred in to replace him.
Pearson, the Warren High coach, had been Young’s coach for two years at Cathedral High in Los Angeles. “If my son was the starting quarterback,” he said, “and Mater Dei was coming off a national championship and said, ‘Here’s the keys to the Ferrari,’ it would have been hard to tell him to stay here.”
Eoghan Kerry would watch Mater Dei on television from his home in Bakersfield, at the bottom end of California’s Central Valley, where he had begun playing football in high school. When the pandemic hit, near the end of his sophomore season, Kerry persuaded his mother, Erin Miller, to let him transfer to Mater Dei, believing that it might help him earn a college scholarship.
For five months, Miller woke at 3 a.m. and drove her son 150 miles down Interstate 5 to Santa Ana, then found a spot in Mater Dei’s solar panel-covered parking lot and went about her work as a history professor for Bakersfield Community College. In the evening, they made the three-hour drive home with her son asleep while she listened to books.
“You want to make nice stable choices for your life and your kids,” said Miller, who has since rented out her home in Bakersfield and found an apartment in Laguna Hills, about 20 miles south of Mater Dei. “In some ways, I’ve been risk averse, but I don’t want him to live his life that way. I knew I’d never regret this.”
And she hasn’t. Kerry, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker, committed to Texas after playing only five games in the spring after high school sports in California were wiped out last fall by the coronavirus pandemic. He expects the experience to help him next summer, when he will again have a new town, a new playbook and new teammates.
“It was a difficult transition socially,” Kerry said. “I wasn’t accepted by everyone at first. But I was here to get to the next step in my career and not make friends. I put my head down and I think the guys respected me.”
When Mater Dei began bringing in more players from farther afield — from Moreno Valley to the northeast, Temecula to the southeast and Los Angeles to the west — Rollinson arranged for vans that school employees living near those areas could drive to and from the campus each day. As many as a dozen players ride in the vans.
Josh Hunter, a senior safety from Temecula, 70 miles from the school, said the van was a significant factor in his choosing Mater Dei over St. John Bosco, which was even farther away. “There’s some bad days, for sure, where you’re tired and your best friend from the neighborhood can walk to school,” said Hunter, who is the son of the former Atlanta Braves first baseman Brian Hunter and is considering playing both baseball and football at San Diego State. “But my goal was to go to college for free — that was the big push.”
The day before Mater Dei and St. John Bosco met, Myron Williams, a 52-year-old father, stood in an end zone at Panish Family Stadium, watching the schools’ freshman teams play. His placement was strategic — at halftime, parents from both sides passed him to ask why he wasn’t sitting on their side.
His son, Madden, a promising eighth-grade receiver who wants to play in high school, is trying to decide between St. John Bosco and Mater Dei.
“It’s no different than looking at colleges,” Myron Williams said. “If you have N.F.L. aspirations, you’re not going to play at an N.A.I.A. school. As a parent, I know there’s no magic pill, but these are the best coaches and the best players, so if you’re going through that for four years, you would hope to be better prepared for the chance to play in college.”
The next night provided a hint of what lies ahead for those freshmen. More than a dozen college coaches roamed the sideline, keeping their eyes on prospects. Of all the elite talent on the field, it was Elijah Brown, Mater Dei’s slight sophomore quarterback, who shined brightest, coolly delivering a variety of throws on target.
The score was tied at halftime but Mater Dei thwarted St. John Bosco twice on downs near its goal line and eased to a 42-21 victory. Matayo Uiagalelei, a 6-foot-5, 254-pound junior tight end and defensive end whose brother D.J. is the starting quarterback at Clemson, was kicking himself for dropping three passes. “I’m going to put that on me,” Uiagalelei said of the loss.
But there was solace for the home team. The last four seasons, the team that had lost in the regular season had avenged that defeat on the way to a state title. “I love a humbling experience,” said Greene, the big lineman, who fully expected a chance to set things right down the road.