It was Oct. 14, 2010. St. John Bosco High School players stood in the Mater Dei visitor’s locker room.
The Braves had just lost 31-20 – the seventh consecutive time they’d fallen to the powerhouse from nearby Santa Ana, Calif.– but there was something different.
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“Everybody got into the locker room and they’re kind of looking at each other and it was a really weird scene to be a part of,” Bosco head coach Jason Negro said. “When you’re standing in the locker room the kids are all looking at each other like, ‘Oh my gosh. You were right, Coach. The things you told us actually came to reality … We should’ve beat these guys.’
“That moment right there was really the defining instance in our program against Mater Dei where we thought, look, we’re going to have a shot against these guys no matter when or where we play.”
It was a long time coming. St. John Bosco had gone 15-13 in Trinity League play over the previous four seasons. Not a bad record. But in that league, it’s important to be better than not bad.
One must do more than hang around with the good teams.
As a first-year head coach at St. John Bosco (Bellflower, Calif.) in 2010, Negro he was tasked with changing the culture of the program. He needed to change the language and get the school talking about winning, not just hanging around in tight games with the best teams.
“We never really discussed and talked about winning on campus,” Negro said. “It was all about competing, it was all about being a part of the process, it was all about just being able to say that we’re associated with these teams rather than we’re going to go out there and we’re gonna not only compete, but we’re gonna win — and we’re gonna beat these guys and we’re gonna be better than them.”
In that 2010 matchup vs. Mater Dei, the Braves had led in the fourth quarter before the Monarchs scored two unanswered touchdowns.
After not scoring at least 20 points against them since 2002, Bosco was breaking through the door of mere contention.
“It’s pretty odd to say that you think that a loss is the one that actually was the defining moment, but when you take a look at the way that 2010 game went, we really, legitimately had an opportunity to win,” Negro said.
In 2011, St. John Bosco proved he was right. Two years after losing 42-12, the Braves best Mater Dei 24-3.
“When you can close a gap that quickly, that was that large of a gap, I think ultimately people stood up and took recognition of the type of program we were building,” Negro said.
Then Josh Rosen took over.
Now the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, Rosen became the starting Bosco quarterback in 2012, his sophomore year. He led the Braves to their first ever playoff appearance.
The culture had completely shifted. When Rosen came along, the team was only two years removed from its previous coaching staff, but he said there weren’t any underlying remains of the mindset before Negro and then-offensive coordinator Chad Johnson arrived.
“(The) culture there was kind of a balance between players being players, coaches not coaching too hard in the sense that you gotta let your guys play, but also it was very detailed,” Rosen said after Cardinals practice on Wednesday.
Rosen led Bosco to the team’s first CIF championship his junior year. The next season, they made it back to the championship game.
While he was at the helm, Bosco never lost to Mater Dei, beating them five times in four years, including for the 2013 CIF Southern Section championship.
“It was competitive. Not like hatred, because I knew a lot of the guys on the team,” Rosen said. “Some other people might’ve gotten it in a little more than us, but friendly competition.”
Rosen graduated and moved on to UCLA. Meanwhile, JT Daniels became the Mater Dei quarterback, and the Monarchs won three of four meetings with St. John Bosco, including the 2017 CIF Southern Section title game.
If this rivalry has turned into a battle of the quarterbacks, Friday night’s game is in keeping with that theme, pitting 247 Sports’ No. 1 pro-style QB DJ Uiagalelei (Bosco) against the No. 1 dual threat QB Bryce Young (Mater Dei).
But it’s not just the quarterbacks. In the Braves’ 2016 CIF Southern Section championship win over Mater Dei, the Braves ran for 405 yards and five touchdowns, which Negro credits to offensive linemen who “controlled the game.”
Last season, Mater Dei wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught two touchdown passes for 206 yards and returned a punt for a third score.
And it’s turned into a coaching battle, pitting the Bosco coach who turned his school into a powerhouse with Bruce Rollinson, who has been the Mater Dei head coach for 27 years and part of the faculty for 40.
Beyond all the hype of the Super 25 No. 1 and No. 2 teams facing off, Negro recognizes that it’s just one regular season game in a long semester full of regular season games.
The winner won’t be crowned champion of the league Friday. Or Super 25 national champion.
“It’s mythical anyway, really, unless there is some sort of tournament,” Negro said. “Our kids understand that, we talk about it all the time. It’s nice to be recognized with some of the best teams in the country, and we’re really excited about the rankings … but ultimately, it’s mythical.”
Looking past the rankings, it’s high school. The teenagers are still learning, growing and maturing.
Rosen is in the middle of a 1-5 season with the Cardinals. He cracked jokes during the media session, but in general, his tone was serious when asked about typical football topics like the running game and offensive line.
But when the word “Bosco” was uttered by a reporter, he smiled.
“Bosco’s awesome. Awesome couple years. I loved high school and playing in those big games prepped me a lot for college as well,” he said.
The rankings may be mythical, but players recognize the big games against the big opponents.
Rosen paused briefly in the middle of a sentence before giving a small smirk that turned into a full-blown smile as he continued:
“Never lost in the Trinity League. Just mentioning that.”