The Crusaders have quietly competed over the years in the San Diego Section's small-school divisions. The belief around the rest of the county is that even in a good year, Marian isn't deep enough to stand atop the county rankings.
But this year, take a closer look.
Senior running back Patrick Gates is an electric back who has led Marian to a 4-0 start and No. 1 status in the Union-Tribune poll. As for the one-man team label, notice that Gates has only 34 carries in four games, totaling 669 yards (162.5 per game average) with eight touchdowns.
In last week's 53-7 rout of Bonita Vista, the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder finished with 11 carries for 214 yards and two rushing touchdowns of 79 and 12 yards. He also scored on a 28-yard reception over the middle in which he split two defenders, leaving them grasping at air.
"When we need a big play, we go to No. 9 (Gates)," said second-year Marian coach Matt White, whose defending Division III champions extended their winning streak to 17. "But there are other guys we have on our team.. We did a good job of moving the ball around (against Bonita Vista)."
In addition to Gates, senior quarterback Scotty Goodloe scored on a 13-yard run, senior running back Mathew Cruz had touchdowns of 22 and 9 yards and junior running back Emmanuel Escalada found the end zone on a 4-yarder.
Gates has speed and that rare ability to make lateral moves, but the offense's first deception starts with Goodloe. Marian runs a Wing-T offense, and Goodloe has the sleight of hand that the best Wing-T quarterbacks need to execute the misdirection offense.
In the trenches, Marian may not have the size and depth for the weekly poundings teams require to survive in the Avocado and Palomar leagues, but David Soria (6-2, 245) and Angel Carillo (6-4, 280) are dominant players.
Marian's other wins are over Horizon, third-ranked Monte Vista and Sweetwater. A week after falling to Marian, Monte Vista routed then-No. 1-ranked Oceanside, 33-13.
The rest of Marian's schedule should include more of the same. Castle Park or Southwest might be difficult, but both probably would have to benefit from turnovers to beat the Crusaders. Then would come the section's Division III playoffs.
The only barrier to the Crusaders from actually finishing with the No. 1 overall ranking for the section might be if a team such as Torrey Pines or Chula Vista win section titles in higher divisions and also finish unbeaten. If that happens, Torrey Pines fans would be able to argue that their unbeaten record has come against a much stronger schedule than Marian's.
Gates' neighborhood school is Lincoln, which has produced NFL running backs Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis. Lincoln closed down this year while the campus is rebuilt, but in another time Gates might otherwise have been the next in a long line of great Lincoln running backs.v But he has no regrets about playing for Marian.
"I would tell any good running back to go to a small school like this one," Gates said. "We have a unique formula here. It's a family situation."
Concord De La Salle (4-0), the Northern California school ranked No. 1 in the nation and riding a 142-game winning streak that is a national high school record, makes another Southern California trip for Saturday night's game at La Costa Canyon (3-1).
The game has created the buzz in San Diego football that fourth-year Mavericks coach Darrin Brown has sought while trying to carve out a niche in the ultra-competive North County Conference that includes Avocado League rivals Carlsbad, Oceanside and El Camino as well as Palomar League powers Vista, Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Buena Vista.
La Costa Canyon is preparing for a standing-room only crowd of 5,000 in its 4,500-seat stadium. The fire marshal will be on hand, so the school may be forced to close the gates before the varsity 7 p.m. kickoff.
"The funny part is we may have the biggest crowd ever to witness a JV game," athletic director John Labeta said of the preliminary game. "People are going to have to get there early to get seats. We shipped 900 tickets (to De La Salle), so they'll have a big following too. We thought about moving the event, but we wanted to have a home crowd."
Labeta has heard from coaches throughout Southern California who want to attend the game, but he has cautioned them they may need to purchase advance tickets. The school won't be able to honor CIF passes if the fire marshal has closed the gates.
THIS WEEK'S FIVE-PACK
De La Salle (4-0) at La Costa Canyon (3-1): Give the Mavericks credit for scheduling a home-and-home series with the national power. But expect a result similar to the Spartans' 53-27 win last year at DLS. Cameron Colvin still won't be playing for the Spartans and it's unknown whether super-quick running back Jackie Bates will be able to go, either.
San Pasqual (3-1) at Oceanside (3-1): These are two schools that aren't as balanced or as deep as we're accustomed to seeing them. Give the edge to Oceanside and its passing game.
Vista (1-3) at Carlsbad (3-1): Carlsbad has a running game coming together and a veteran quarterback that should be the difference. But don't count out Vista and its deceptive record this year. A win over La Puente Bishop Amat was reversed to a loss by forfeit for inadvertently using an ineligible player.
El Camino (3-1) vs. Rancho Buena Vista (3-1) at Vista: El Camino and RBV are two of the most improved teams and both riding a three-game winning streak. El Camino is on the better roll of the two.
Montgomery (0-4) at Marian Catholic (4-0): Marian extends its winning streak to 18 with ease.
Editor's Note: Tom Shanahan is in his first year as a correspondent from San Diego County for Cal-Hi Sports. He has covered prep sports and other sports for 25 years for various outlets in San Diego, principally the San Diego Union-Tribune.