Many consider the 2017 Mater Dei Santa Ana football team the best in school history.
The Monarchs have won four of the last five mythical national championships. Any squad that could distinguish itself from the other iterations at Mater Dei would also have to be in the discussion for the best high school team of all time. On its way to an undefeated 15-0 season, the 2017 team defeated the number 12, 13(twice), 14, and 37 teams in the final national rankings by an average score of 46-20.
A team like Mater Dei never rebuilds, but they were expected to take a step back in 2018. They likely would have, except, at this opportune moment, one of the greatest Monarchs in school history unexpectedly stepped onto campus. Joshua Hunter arrived for spring ball and like all incoming ninth-graders was placed on the freshman team.
“After two days, I moved him from the freshman team to the varsity,” Mater Dei head coach Bruce Rollinson told EVT in an exclusive interview. “He was a dog eating up freshmen wide receivers.”
With that move, a Monarch legend was born. Hunter worked his way onto the field as a nickel back and became a starter following an injury to one of his teammates. Never in the history of the program had a freshman played on defense. In 2018, they had two, Joshua Hunter and Domani Jackson.
During his time at Mater Dei, Jackson, a USC commit and consensus five-star recruit, was part of a dynamic defensive backfield that included current Oregon Duck Jaylin Davis and Cal commit Cameron Sidney, among others. Jackson, the star of the state of California according to the recruiting services, was not the best player on his team. That distinction falls to Hunter, who won back-to-back Trinity League Defensive MVP honors his junior and senior seasons. He won the 2020 award despite playing most of the year with a broken wrist.
“Oh, yeah, easily,” Rollison replied matter of factly when asked if Hunter was the best player on his team.
5 Star Determination
The story of Hunter’s career at Mater Dei can only be surpassed by the story of what he had to do to pull it off. Hunter lived in Temecula, 70 miles away from the Mater Dei campus, for the first three years at the school. To make it easier on his parents, Hunter would wake up at 4:30 am every day. He would get dropped off in Corona, CA, pile into a van with other kids from the Inland Empire, and make the rest of the trip to campus in time for his 7 am lifting sessions. After practice, he would take the same route back, arriving at home around 8:30 or 9 pm.
“For me, it was about playing against the best,” Hunter explained on why he chose to sacrifice so much to attend Mater Dei. “I just wanted that competition. Seeing them on youtube and seeing them all over social media, knowing that those kids are getting prepared the best to go to college, to be successful in college. I thought that was the best decision for me, knowing I want to go to the next level.”
5 Star Focus
Hunter rode the “IE Van” through his junior season. His father, former Atlanta Braves first basemen Brian Hunter, got a place in Irvine for Hunter’s senior year. Through the entire three-year period Hunter showed a tremendous amount of consistency and focus.
Rollison explained that with high school students, any change in one area of their life often impacts them in another. When a player focuses on their academics, they do not have time left over to watch the film the coaches provided. Conversely, some players pour over game film at the expense of their school work. Hunter was able to do both at an exceptional level.
During the hour-plus trips to and from school, he would catch up on needed sleep or do homework never allowing the trek to become an excuse. Mater Dei is a college preparatory school, and Hunter thrived in the classroom as much as he did on the field.
5 Star Intelligence
Hunter’s transcript is littered with AP courses. He finished high school with a 4.2 GPA. Year after year, Rollinson received emails from all of Hunter’s teachers praising the young man as a “pleasure to have in class.” Conversant in a wide variety of topics, Hunter is a deep thinker, who responds with creativity and insight that belies his age. The depth he showed in the classroom, he took onto the field.
No amount of analysis led to paralysis for the defensive back. On the contrary, he is adept at picking out tendencies and using what he studies to play faster. Among four years of examples, Hunter’s final game, Mater Dei’s 44-7 win in the Open Division State Championship Game, provides a good case study. In the first half of that game, Hunter recovered two fumbles and recorded an interception.
Hunter’s pick came in the middle of the second quarter. Mater Dei’s opponent, Serra High School San Mateo, was driving. It was third and ten. Playing the deep safety, he had the discipline and know-how to bracket the receiver. With Mater Dei’s corner, Zabien Brown, playing underneath Serra’s Seamus Gilmartin, Hunter stayed on top of the future division one tight end. When pressure forced a high throw, Hunter was in the perfect position to intercept it. He returned it for what would have been an 85 touchdown, but it was called back for an illegal block in the back.
On the second fumble, Serra lined up inches from the goal line in a power set with only a few seconds left in the half. They attempted a QB sneak but had trouble with the snap. While every other player on the field was pleading with the refs about where to spot the ball, Hunter was diving into the pile and then onto the ball in the endzone. The recovery ended the half, and any hope Serra may have had to gain momentum and work their way back into the contest.
5 Star Character
Hunter originally intended to sign his National Letter of Intent to play at SDSU in the early signing period, but playing in the Open Division Championship forced him to reschedule his official visit, and he did not want to sign until he had seen the campus firsthand. When he arrived, two players, Drew Azzopardi and Hassan Mahasin, from the Serra team his Monarchs had just defeated, were also on their official visits. According to Mahasin, there was not even a hint of trash-talking or bragging from Hunter.
“Josh is a really humble guy,” Mahasin said. “He doesn’t really talk that much about that game. He’s very quiet. He just comes up and doesn’t really brag or nothing like that. He’s pretty humble.”
Rollison had even higher praise. He described Hunter as one of the three best people to ever come from his program and will miss him more as a person than as a football player. “If you’re lucky enough to coach as long as I have,” he said. “A kid like Josh comes along every once in a while.”
5 Star Leadership
Hunter would have been forgiven for throwing a little good-natured banter Azzopardi and Mahasin’s way, but chief among the incoming freshman’s values is always having his teammates’ backs. “This is us” is the phrase Hunter used to describe the players inside Mater Dei’s locker room. Like all leaders, Hunter thinks three steps ahead. “This is us” now refers to Azzopardi and Mahasin.
It was this leadership that stood out most to SDSU in the recruitment process. Hunter led Mater Dei to lift on Saturday mornings after a Friday Night game reasoning that if they were working that hard, no other team in America could top their work ethic. Following the advice of one of his coaches, he strategically focused on moving “B players to A players” rather than focusing his efforts to motivate “C players.”
5 Star Production
With all of these off-the-charts attributes, Hunter’s place in the world of recruiting ranking boils down to the numbers 5’9” and 165 pounds. The rule that players of his stature do not do well in football shows up in particular ways. Primarily, small players are not able to tackle effectively or help against taller players in the passing game.
Hunter is clearly the exception to that rule. Rollinson described him as the best open-field tackler to ever play at Mater Dei. 2022 will be Rollinson’s 34th season coaching the Monarchs.
Rollinson is thrilled Hunter ended up with the Aztecs. He has always admired SDSU and Brady Hoke. As an assistant coach at Rancho Santiago College in the early eighties, Rollinson would come down to San Diego to watch SDSU and the Don Coryell led Chargers practice. Throughout Hoke’s career, the two have become good friends. Rollison told Hoke that Hunter will find his way onto the field early for the Aztecs.
While Rollinson has not sent many players to SDSU in the past, he sees Hunter as a catalyst to change that. “Josh will come back to Mater Dei and describe the culture at SDSU,” Rollinson explained. “More players will want to be a part of that and play there.”
“Five Star,” Rollinson said when asked where he would rate Hunter.
With all due respect to everyone else evaluating high school football players, when a person like Rollinson, who has coached as many elite players as anyone in the country, ranks a player, he is the authority, not ESPN, Rivals, Scout, or 247sports.
Congratulations to the Aztecs’ coaching staff and their fans, they have landed SDSU’s first five-star recruit, Joshua Hunter.
The SDSU Football Podcast
Listen to the entire conversation with Josh Hunter at any of the links below.