Trailing the nation’s No. 1-ranked high school football team by 23 points in the first half doesn’t bode well for most opponents.

Unless the opponent is St. John Bosco, the nation’s No. 2-ranked high school football team, and loser to No. 1 Mater Dei a few times too many in recent years. With its offense and defense coming alive at the end of the first half and throughout the second, the Braves ended three years of frustration Nov. 30 by defeating the Monarchs 39-34 for the CIF-Southern Section Division 1 championship.

In a game spotlighting loads of college-bound talent, DJ Uiagalelei threw for 44 yards and five scoring passes for St. John Bosco, slightly better than his counterpart Bryce Young who gained 405 yards and five TDs through the air for Mater Dei. The big difference: Brave sacks of Young and interceptions at key moments, including a pickoff by Nathan Burrell at Mater Dei’s 17 late in the third quarter with the Braves trailing 28-26. 

Uiagalelei soon found Logan Loya for an 11-yard TD to give St. John Bosco its first lead, 32-28. Loya caught a 26-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 39-28, but Mater Dei rallied on Young’s 23-yard TD pass to Kyron Ware-Hudson with less than six minutes to play.

The Monarchs got the ball back in Brave territory and were at the Bosco 13 with less than 90 seconds to play when Young was sacked by Ma’a Gaoteote and fumbled. The Braves recovered, but were stopped and Mater Dei had one more try.

Young heaved the ball to the Bosco end zone, where Kris Hutson intercepted to clinch the title, the third in Brave history. It was the seventh straight year St. John Bosco has played in a CIF-SS title game.

It was also the fourth time St. John Bosco and Mater Dei had met in the D-1 finals in the past four years. Coach Jason Negro’s Braves won in 2016, coach Bruce Rollinson’s Monarchs the past two years, and Mater Dei won their Oct. 25 encounter 38-24 in Bellflower that decided the 2019 Trinity League title and top seeding for the playoffs.

And early on a chilly night at Cerritos College Stadium, it looked like Mater Dei would have its way again before 10,000 howling fans. Young’s 62-yard scoring pass to Quincy Craig on the game’s third play was quickly followed by Young’s six-yard TD strike to Ware-Hudson, and the Braves’ mistakes in their own territory helped Mater Dei extend the lead to 28-5. 

Only Loya’s field goal and a safety (Young intentionally grounded the ball in the end zone) put Bosco on the scoreboard. Finally, the Braves penetrated the end zone when Uiagalelei located Kris Hutson for a touchdown just 30 seconds before halftime. 

Another Uiagalelei-to-Hutson TD early in the third quarter cut the lead to 28-19, and when Uiagalelei hit Adam Awaida for a 25-yard TD late in the third quarter, it was anyone’s game.

Well, maybe not just anyone. Not these two teams, who battled fiercely, again, right to the end, and — win or lose — have every reason to hold their heads high. 

State Championship 

And don’t forget, the state championship games are still to be played. In the Open Division, it’s been all Braves and Monarchs the last few seasons coming out on top, with Bosco winning in 2016 and Mater Dei in 2017 and 2018.

St. John Bosco (13-1) will have the opportunity for a state title on Dec. 14 when it faces De La Salle of Concord (12-1) in the Open Division final, 8 p.m. at Cerritos College. De La Salle has lost in the finals each of the past three years, and is as ready to end the losing streak as the Braves are to start a new winning streak of their own.