SANTA ANA – Mission Viejo and Mater Dei, who have played such an important role in Orange County football over the past two decades, met for the first time in a playoff game on Friday and delivered terrific drama.
For a half.
But as has been the case all season, you've got to roll for four quarters to keep up with top-seeded Mission Viejo, which overcame an early deficit and scored a 42-21 victory in the Southern Section Pac-5 semifinals at Santa Ana Stadium.
The Diablos (13-0), who have been part of a season-long debate involving Servite as to who is No. 1, have done their part. They will be in the finals next Saturday at Angel Stadium. On the other sideline will be second-seeded Servite (12-0) or third-seeded Alemany (12-0), which play Saturday night at Cerritos College.
The opening moments of the game were fantastic. Mission Viejo needed only three plays to score, with Alex Bridgford passing to Austin Reuland for a 53-yard scoring pass.
Then Mater Dei (8-5) scored in two plays as Freddie Mora scored from 17 yards after Treavon Coley returned the kickoff 52 yards.
Before the quarter ended, it appeared Mater Dei was going to score another touchdown, but quarterback Max Wittek was stopped on a fourth-and-inches inside the one-yard line while trying to get a first down.
“I knew this would be a game of opportunity,” said Bruce Rollinson, Mater Dei's coach. “There was no whistle and he came rolling out.”
Wittek also reached the ball forward, but he didn't get the call. The defense continued to be tough, and Mater Dei still took a 14-7 lead with a 10-play, 59-yard drive ending with Victor Blackwell's leaping, spinning, 27-yard reception.
Mater Dei's defense led by Joseph Schmidt looked as if it would protect the lead, but on third-and-20, a pass interference penalty on an interception not only nullified the turnover but gave Mission Viejo an automatic first down.
The game was never the same.
On the next play, Bridgford passed to wide-open Frank Randall for a 19-yard score with 1:08 left in the half, sparking four touchdowns in five possessions by the Diablos.
Less than three minutes into the third quarter, Randall scored from 29 yards on a reverse for a 21-14 lead, and Bridgford passed 22 yards to wide-open Bryan Keller to make it 28-14 heading into the fourth quarter.
In the second half, Mission Viejo's scoring drives were 45, 49, 38 and 48 yards. “Field position in the second half killed us,” Rollinson said.
Bridgford, a junior, completed 10 of 18 for 164 yards and three touchdowns. His counterpart, Wittek, completed 10 of 25 for 183 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Four of those completions were to Blackwell covering 116 yards, including a 47-yarder in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 35-21 with 5:27 to go.
“We came out in the second half fired up, we were determined,” Bridgford said. “We needed to get going. Once we got it going, they weren't stopping us.”
Can anybody stop the Diablos?
“I don't know I would say anything as bold as that,” Bridgford said, “but we're playing good football now.”
Mission Viejo coach Bob Johnson didn't think so, but he's also a perfectionist. “We didn't play well in the first half, and a lot of it is what they were doing,” said the man who has coached teams to six section titles and 255 victories.
So how did he fix the problems he saw with his offense, defense and special teams?
“It's called a gut check,” he said. “Taking nothing away from Mater Dei, but (we) couldn't have played any worse in all three phases.
“I'm so proud of my coaches. They do all the work, not me.”
The effort by those players and coaches are sending Mission Viejo to the finals for the first time in the section's marquee division. During the Johnson era, which began in 1999, previous trips to the finals were in Division II competition.
“This is big,” Johnson said. “It's very big.”