Senior Andrew Martinez is one of the few players on Mater Dei Catholic High School’s football team who can remember a time when the Crusaders were part of the San Diego Section’s post-season pigskin party, otherwise known as the CIF playoffs.
“It was my freshman year,” he said. “I think we were something like 5-5 (in the regular season).”
Mater Dei finished 5-5 in 2008, receiving a bye to the quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed.
What ensued following a massive wave of graduation and relocation of the school from its former South San Diego campus to Otay Ranch were consecutive 1-9 seasons.
The Crusaders’ season ended at the conclusion of regular season play both in 2009 and 2010.
But head coach John Joyner’s rebuilding efforts have landed the MDC varsity team an 8-2 overall record this season and, following the Crusaders’ 33-14 victory over host Sweetwater on Nov. 10, sole possession to this year’s Metro-Pacific League championship title.
Martinez caught a touchdown pass and made an interception to help guide his team to the win.
“It feels awesome,” said the six-foot-three, 240-pound tight end/linebacker said. “We worked so hard to get here. Our goal since the first day of the season was to have a winning season, and we not only accomplished that but also won league. It’s awesome to be going back to the playoffs again.”
Mater Dei received the No. 7 seed in this year’s Division IV field and will host the 10th-seeded Palo Verde Valley Yellow Jackets (7-3) in Friday’s first round.
The winner of Friday’s game advances to meet second-seeded Madison (9-0-1) in the quarterfinals on Nov. 25.
The Yellow Jackets finished 3-2 in Imperial Valley League, trailing league champion co-champions Brawley and Imperial, both of which finished with identical 4-0-1 league records and currently sport 7-2-1 overall marks.
Imperial earned the No. 5 seed in the Division IV playoff draw and hosts 12th-seeded Del Norte (4-6) in a first round game while Brawley received the No. 6 seed and hosts 11th-seeded La Jolla (2-8).
Grossmont Valley League champion Mt. Miguel (8-1) earned the No. 1 seed in the Division IV field while Valley League champion Valley Center (9-1) is seeded third ahead of GVL runner-up Santana (9-1).
Madison defeated Valley Center in last year’s Division IV championship game.
The win over Sweetwater gave Mater Dei an unblemished 3-0 Metro-Pacific record.
“It’s been an awesome year and it’s not over,” Joyner said. “We want to keep going as far as we possibly can.”
Joyner singled out quarterback Joe Legrete for some special honors. Starter Jack Fernandes was sidelined by an injury halfway through the season, forcing Legrete into the line-up as the team’s field leader.
The switch didn't faze the game plan.
Legrete passed for four touchdowns in the victory over Sweetwater, including a pair of breakaway catch-and-carries by receiver/punter Nick Kaiser for 74 and 54 yards, a 32-yard end zone strike to Iman Chatman-Dixon and a 25-yard TD pass to Martinez.
Jaison Miller scored on a 34-yard interception return to account for Mater Dei’s other touchdown.
The Crusaders zoomed in front 14-0 on the strength of Kaiser’s two long touchdown catches before the Red Devils got back in the game with 12 unanswered points.
Luis Venegas tossed a 61-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Castro on a fake punt for Sweetwater’s first touchdown of the game. Venegas later intercepted a pass and returned the ball to the Mater Dei eight-yard line. Kristian Garcia carried the ball in from there on the next play.
Mater Dei led 20-12 at halftime and erased all doubt about sharing a potential league co-championship with the Devils by out-scoring the hosts 13-2 in the second half.
Sweetwater (1-2 in league, 4-6 overall) was credited with a two-point safety with 1:04 remaining in the third quarter when a punt snap by the visitors sailed over Kaiser’s head out of the end zone.
Mater Dei sealed the win in the fourth quarter by collecting three turnovers — a fumble recovery by Austin Allen and picks by Miller and Sebastian Aluza.
“To be 8-2 and league champions — we’re excited,” Joyner said.