As one of the top-ranked high school teams in the country, the Mater Dei Monarchs need no introduction when it comes to their athletic prowess and consistent dominance on the football field.
Mater Dei had one regular season loss to league rival St. John Bosco, but found redemption in the post season — with a score of 34-17, they clinched the CIF-SS-Division 1 championship on Nov. 24 at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. They won the state championship on Dec. 9 after shutting out San Mateo Serra.
The team has historically been known for its size, speed and ability. The four-time California state champions have produced six undefeated seasons, countless Division I athletes and three Heisman Trophy winners — the only high school to ever do so.
Because of Mater Dei’s national acclaim, people unfamiliar with the program often think that Monarch football players care about athletics first, with academics and extracurriculars miles behind. The team, however, has 17 young men who have a passion for something in addition to football – singing in the school choir.
“We’re pretty much known as football players,” defensive lineman Semi Taulanga said of the outside perception many people have of his team. “People within the school who really know us for who we are, they know we’re not just that.”
MATER DEI CO-CAPTAIN SEMI TAULANGA (NO. 89), CURRENTLY A JUNIOR, JOINED CHOIR HIS SOPHOMORE YEAR TO EXPAND HIS HORIZONS AND MEET NEW PEOPLE. PHOTO COURTESY OF MATER DEI FOOTBALL
Taulanga, a junior and one of the Mater Dei captains, joined choir his sophomore year to expand his horizons and meet new people. Now, he has found a home. On the field, Taulanga is “a disruptor up front” with “violent hands” and a great attitude, according to associate head coach Khaled Holmes, a former USC and NFL center who handles the offensive line.
When he’s in the choir room, however, Taulanga’s 6-foot, 313-pound frame translates into a beautiful voice, according to Mater Dei Choir Director Jodi Reed.
Holmes, a 2008 Mater Dei graduate, said he and his fellow coaches encourage their players to get involved in activities outside of football to build them up as young men.
“It’s important to be a well-rounded person and to develop multiple interests, especially at a young age,” Holmes said. “We really enable that here.”
Linebacker Mata Uiagalelei said he thinks the football program does exactly that.
“They don’t just push football,” Uiagalelei said. “They invite you to enjoy other parts of life to get started for life after football.”
Mater Dei requires freshmen such as Uiagalelei to take some sort of arts course, but after that, it’s up to each student whether he wants to return. Taulanga said he wanted to stay in part because of a song that his choir sang last year that hit home for him.
Taulanga is Polynesian and grew up surrounded by music, as did many of his Polynesian teammates who are also in the choir with him. Because music plays a significant role in Polynesian culture and connection, when Reed introduced a non-English piece traditionally sung in Samoan, Tongan and Fijian cultures, it was an instant success with the choir members and everyone who heard them perform.
“Even other choir groups were really excited for us,” Taulanga said. “After we sang our song, we got a standing ovation from most of the crowd.
Beyond connecting with just the Polynesian students through music, Reed said she attempts to bond with her student-athletes through their love of sport.
“Athletics are a super-competitive environment, so I try to tap into that competitive edge,” Reed said, “because it’s something they relate to and enjoy.”
Reed recently called upon her students’ “competitive edge” when she had her classroom of around 40 boys in Taulanga’s choir, the Kingsmen, audition for solo tryouts.
More than 15 of the boys, including Taulanga and senior defensive lineman Hanu Atuatasi, stood up to each sing a 30-second snippet from one of the songs they were set to perform at their then-upcoming concert in hopes of obtaining a coveted solo spot.
Like football, choir also requires constant repetitions to get things as perfect as possible before the big performance.
During that same session, Reed also had the boys practice lining up on the risers in perfect unison, but when it took more than three tries to get things right, encouraging shouts of “lock in” and “come on, guys!” rang out throughout the room – words that the football players often use during practices to keep their teammates focused.
“They’ve got that work ethic that comes from being part of a Mater Dei athletic team,” Reed said. “When they come to the arts and they learn these soft skills, it is even more beneficial to them.”
Starting center Cristian Fallani, a member of Mater Dei’s most prestigious choir, the Chamber Singers, said he participates because he enjoys the parallels between athletics and the arts.
“It’s just like varsity football, you can’t miss a day of practice,” Fallani said. “I joined because I wanted to compete with the best of the best, just like the reason why I went to Mater Dei.”
Reed said she understands that football may be higher on the football players’ priority list than choir, but the arts “can still be part of another aspect of their personality” in conjunction with athletics, not a contradiction to it.
In fact, sometimes athletics and the arts collide before Friday night home games when football-playing choir members sing the national anthem together before rejoining their team on the sideline.
Before teaching student-athletes at Mater Dei, Reed had never been to a football game. Now, she is a huge supporter of the program and enjoys getting to watch her students every Friday night from the stands.
At a school like Mater Dei that has excellent academic, athletic and arts programs, it can be easy for high schoolers to choose one activity to focus their time on. But for now, Taulanga is content being more than just a football player.
“Everybody has their own part in the song that they use to work together to turn it into something beautiful,” Taulanga said. “It’s the same thing with football. Everybody has their own position to play, and when everybody does their own job, we’re successful.”