Drone film and hour-long commutes: Inside one of the country's top high school football leagues

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DJ Uiagalelei throws a pass during a St. John Bosco game. (Courtesy Louis Lopez/St. John Bosco High School)
DJ Uiagalelei throws a pass during a St. John Bosco game. (Courtesy Louis Lopez/St. John Bosco High School)

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Two of the top high school quarterbacks in the nation have spent part of their formative years commuting more than an hour to attend their respective Southern California schools. Bryce Young, a USC commit, drives about 75 minutes each morning to attend Mater Dei High School, which has produced other USC quarterbacks in Matt Leinart, Matt Barkley and most recently JT Daniels.

DJ Uiagalelei, a Clemson commit, spent his junior season riding 90 minutes with a St. John Bosco defensive line coach so he could attend the school where he once watched Josh Rosen play. Perhaps more crazy than the driving was the setting in which both described their high school experience: A high school media day in early August which featured complimentary lunch and five hours dedicated to podium questions and photoshoots.

But that’s how it works in the Trinity League, a high school football conference comprised of six football programs that serves as a breeding ground for not only the Pac-12 but Power Five programs nationwide.

“We're not high school football,” said Pat Harlow, who played eight seasons in the NFL and is now the head coach at the Trinity League’s JSerra High School. “To compare us to most high school football would be absolutely wrong. Our programs are run more at a collegiate level.”

Harlow's program allows players to purchase pre-prepared meals. League rival St. John Bosco films its practices with drones, while Mater Dei has the support of a trainer who’s worked with Olympic athletes. Those three schools started the season ranked in the Top 25 nationally per MaxPreps. Mater Dei and St. John Bosco are currently ranked second and third and sent a combined 23 three-star or higher recruits to college in the Class of 2019 according to the official media day guide. And there’s still three more schools in the league who also have notable alumni in Servite (Matthew Slater, Ryan and Matt Kalil), Orange Lutheran (Austin Pettis and Ryan Hiliniski) and Santa Margarita (Carson Palmer).

As the league’s grown, the schools have joined a top-level high school arms race, similar to the recruiting tug of war many of the Trinity League players experience in their college search. Uiagalelei was attracted to St. John Bosco because of their Nike sponsorship and appearances on ESPN, and he’s not alone. That’s why this weekend the Trinity League will host “Trinity League vs. the USA Showcase,” which will bring in Milton (Georgia) High School and Maryland high schools Good Counsel and St. Frances, the No. 1 team in the nation.

“It's just basically kind of built upon itself,” said St. John Bosco head coach Jason Negro. “It’s something that we want to kind of challenge not only our schools, but our programs and our league as a whole.”

Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson believes when Negro joined the league everything shifted. In 2010, Negro became the head coach of St. John Bosco and the next year Rollinson found himself wondering how his team had fallen from eight title trips in 12 seasons in the 1990s and early 2000s to a 4-6 finish in 2011.

Negro had a clear vision for his team: A spread offense that put up large offensive statistics and drew national attention from it. In 2013, it came to fruition as future UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen led St. John Bosco to a state title over longtime California powerhouse De La Salle High School. The next year, Negro took his team out to Aloha Stadium in Hawaii to play St. Louis High School, who was quarterbacked by a rising star named Tua Tagovailoa.

That 2014 season was Jessie Christensen’s second with St. John Bosco. Listed on the school’s website as the football operations manager, Christensen’s the main communicator with parents and coordinates media appearances for both coaches and players. She’s part of a staff that Negro admits has “swollen a bit,” and includes two coaches dedicated to helping players with college recruiting.

“It's something we've embraced as a school,” Negro said. “We said, 'We want to be college prep, well then we need to act like it in all facets.’ ”

The head coach of Mater Dei since 1989, Rollinson doesn’t think the sponsors or lavish equipment help win games but it does help bring in players. As St. John Bosco rose above Mater Dei, Rollinson sought to understand social media and how players were now interested in national exposure. He solicited help from his daughters and learned about how players built recruiting profiles and promoted themselves through social media.

Rollinson claims all but one of his quarterbacks has received a Division I scholarship and it’s largely because of the advanced checks at the line and reading of defenses he requires from them. But he started to value other things too, because his players did. He ditched a long-lasting disdain for 7-on-7 because players wanted to play in the upstart offseason program. He even brought in trainer Scot Prohaska, who trained Olympians and the Buffalo Sabres, to modernize the strength and conditioning program.

In 2017, Mater Dei opened a 5,000-square foot weight room to complement Prohaska’s efforts and top quarterback prospect JT Daniels led the team to its first California Interscholastic Federation championship in 18 years. The next season, Mater Dei defeated national powerhouse IMG Academy (Florida) 28-24.

“It’s about players,” Rollinson said. “It’s about attracting the young talent through camps and exposing your program and getting the maximum amount of exposure you can.”

St. John Bosco built a $7.4 million stadium in 2018 that will host its playoff rematch with Mater Dei in October. It could be the last time Young and Uiagalelei play against each other in high school and it will be under two coaches whose styles once clashed but now are unified under the same struggle. They need to prove to new incoming quarterbacks why their program, and all the fancy gadgets, are winning the elite high school football arms race.

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