BELLFLOWER, Calif. — On a balmy late-October evening, the football universe centered around a Catholic high school in Southern California.
It may not have brought the national fanfare comparable to a marquee NFL or college football game, but 5,000-plus fans packed into the stands at St. John Bosco High School just a few miles southeast of Los Angeles, for a reason.
They were there to see the school face another Catholic powerhouse, Mater Dei — from nearby Santa Ana — in a mega matchup of two of the best high school football teams in the nation.
Both teams were crawling with elite-level college football recruits, and they’ve been trading spots as California state champions — and in some cases national champions — in recent years.
The hype was real. The school partioned off a designated tailgate lot and pumped up the crowd with pregame videos tailored specifically to that night’s rivalry game.
Even in the thick of the college football season, scouts were in attendance and pacing the sidelines, including Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin and representatives from Washington and BYU.
But while scouts may have been surveying the uncommitted players, the cream of the crop in this matchup has already been spoken for: St. John Bosco quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is headed to Clemson and Mater Dei QB Bryce Young will play for Alabama.
While it’s easy to see these players looking across the sideline at each other some day in a college football national championship game, nobody wants to get ahead of themselves.
“That’s a long way down the road,” Young said of a potential college matchup after No. 1 ranked Mater Dei beat No. 2 Bosco, 38-24. “For me, my mind’s just on the season. This is a huge win. We’ll definitely enjoy this one. We had this one circled.”
Young threw for 256 yards and three touchdowns while running for two more against a defense filled with Division I athletes. He made plays with his arm and his feet, evading pressure and proving that despite his “undersized” 6-foot frame he possesses rare instincts at the position.
Uiagalelei has similar skills but has a prototype NFL frame (6-foot-5, 245 pounds). He also reportedly throws a 95 mph fastball and will continue to pursue a baseball career at Clemson. Major League Baseball teams are keeping an eye on him.
But on this night, Young is the victor, improving his head-to-head record against Uiagaleilei to 2-1. They’ll likely meet one more time in high school, assuming both teams advance to the sectional championship game as they have the past three years.
From there, it’s off to college, where they may very well cross paths again. Clemson and Alabama have faced off in three of the last four national title games.
“That’s kind of far in the future,” Young said with a laugh.
As exciting as it is to see two prep superstars collide on one field, it’s equally odd to see two prized quarterbacks from California on their way across the country to play college ball.
Rivals national recruiting coordinator Adam Gorney says it’s still unusual to see teams in the Southeast swoop into the West Coast and steal recruits like Uiagalelei (Rivals’ No. 1 national recruit in the 2020 class) and Young (No. 53).
There was a time when those teams didn’t dare try step into a region that was traditionally dominated by USC, UCLA and other West Coast powers.
Mater Dei has a long history of sending famous quarterbacks to USC, from Matt Leinart to Matt Barkley, and current Trojans signal-caller JT Daniels (out for the season with a knee injury). The last time Bosco had a five-star quarterback, Josh Rosen, he wound up playing at UCLA and is currently with the Miami Dolphins.
Young nearly followed that tradition by initially choosing USC until he decided to flip to Alabama in September. Given USC’s uncertainty with head coach Clay Helton and the recent resignation of athletic director Lynn Swann just weeks prior, it was an understandable decision.
That doesn’t make it any less jarring that Young and Uiagalelei, who both grew up in Southern California in families that rooted for the Trojans, weren’t lured by the hometown team.
“There’s nothing that USC did or happened there that had anything to do with it,” Young told the Los Angeles Times when he committed to Alabama. “I just felt like it was personally a better fit for me and would be better for my future. I know there’s always going to be speculation and people always want to blame it on something, but truthfully, it had nothing to do with USC.”
It may have been more about what USC didn’t do, which was offer the chance at playing for an immediate national title contender.
Gorney said these two quarterbacks are part of a growing trend of big-time recruits who are fleeing the state for other programs. None of the top 13 California recruits in the 2020 class are committed to in-state schools.
Simply put, winning matters to recruits, who are now too young to remember the last time USC or UCLA were national powers. Alabama and Clemson, on the other hand, have won a combined seven national titles in the last 10 years.
“That’s who you want to play with, you want to play with the best people in the country,” Uiagalelei told Rivals when he chose Clemson in May. “Being able to play with those top people like that, to be able to play with the best people, that’s what you want and you want to play on the highest stage and play for a national championship.”
And even if that means ditching the team you grew with, it’s worth it for the most ambitious athletes. Gorney said location doesn’t matter as much to college prospects these days because high-end recruits tend to meet up at various passing camps and showcases while they’re rising through the ranks. Many of them keep in touch via texting and social media.
Case in point: Young says he and Uiagalelei are close off the field. They are connected by their unique talent and mutual desire for success at the highest level possible. No matter how far they go, it’s likely their careers will be linked in many ways.
But while those in attendance on Friday were treated to a thrilling showdown of high school powers, college football fans in southern California may someday be left wondering about the two quarterbacks that got away.
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