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San Francisco’s biggest football game comes with an unusual twist this year

Jerry Mixon Jr. tries to elude Palma’s Owen Sargenti during Sacred Heart Cathedral’s 21-8 loss to the Chieftains at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas on Sept. 2, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

San Francisco’s biggest high school football game returns Friday night with a twist — the underdogs are now the favorites.

Sacred Heart Cathedral’s Fightin’ Irish often find themselves playing second fiddle to archrival St. Ignatius, but are set to enter the 2022 Bruce-Mahoney football game in the driver’s seat.

The change in narratives has little to do with SHC’s three wins over the Wildcats in the last five years, and it’s almost completely independent of last year’s playoff run, which saw the Fightin’ Irish capture Central Coast Section (CCS) Division III and California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) 4-A crowns. Instead, it almost exclusively stems from the talent that SHC (3-3, 2-1 West Catholic Athletic League) currently boasts.

For all of the great players that have put on the pads for the Bruce-Mahoney series since the trophy was first up for grabs in the 1945-46 school year, few can match the accolades of Jerry Mixon Jr., SHC’s Oregon-bound superstar. Mixon’s set to play linebacker at the next level, but he has the physique of a defensive end and speed of a running back. Few linebackers, Division I-bound or not, can moonlight as wideouts and kick returners.

“He’s versatile,” St. Ignatius defensive coordinator Gustavo Manzanares said of Mixon. “They’ll put him in the backfield; they’ll flank him out at receiver. I wouldn’t be surprised if they put him at quarterback for a little bit.”

Mixon is a one-man wrecking crew and an early favorite to win WCAL Player of the Year, but he’s hardly alone. SHC also boasts Arizona State commit RL Miller, who transitioned from cornerback to linebacker after a growth spurt, averages 96.2 receiving yards per game, and slot receiver Isaiah Keishk, who caught a touchdown last week in his return from a broken leg.

Sacred Heart Cathedral quarterback Aidan McGrath (11) surveys the field during the first quarter of the Fightin' Irish's 36-20 win over Valley Christian in San Jose on Oct. 1, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

The SHC offense has been hit-or-miss at times this year, but quarterback Aidan McGrath has offered stability of late, throwing for over 230 yards in the past two games. While their run game has been maddeningly inconsistent, it can be lethal on the right days, with Benny Hatch and Jordan Solofa-Fatu opening up holes for Kendric Sanders.

St. Ignatius wide receiver Gus Parker (3) readies himself for a catch during the Wildcats' 41-6 win over Palo Alto in San Francisco on Aug. 26, 2022. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

St. Ignatius (2-4, 1-2) doesn’t quite have a home run threat like Mixon, Miller or Sanders, but Gus Parker does have game-changing speed, which he also showcases as the center fielder on the Wildcats’ baseball team. He scored three touchdowns in less than 18 minutes during a season-opening win over Palo Alto, and he had five catches for 131 yards two weeks ago in a loss to St. Francis. The rest of the St. Ignatius offensive strength is in its depth, with a wide range of slot receivers and tight ends chipping in. Moe Barnum and Pierce St. Geme have been among the more common contributors, but Nick Mann, Teddy Gardner, Ryan Levine and a whole host of others can jump in.

Who will be feeding those receivers on Friday night remains a mystery. Senior quarterback Mac McAndrews suffered a shoulder injury in the Wildcats’ fourth game, a loss to Bellarmine, and sophomore Soren Hummel has filled in admirably since then. McAndrews suited up last week against Valley Christian, but Hummel made his second consecutive start and earned his first career win.

St. Ignatius quarterback Soren Hummel (18) readies himself to pass during the Wildcats' 24-0 win over Valley Christian in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Paul Ghiglieri/St. Ignatius Athletics

Even with the uncertainty at quarterback, SI’s biggest concern doesn’t lie in the passing game, or anywhere on the offensive side, as sophomore Jarious Hogan has joined Cameron Jones and Danny Jung to round out the rushing attack. For the first time since 2017, there have been glaring issues with the Wildcat defense.

Giving up 49 points on Sept. 9 to St. Mary’s-Stockton is hardly a cause for concern, as the Rams are one of the top teams in all of Northern California. The alarms sounded after allowing 34 points to a Bellarmine team that has totaled just 10 points in the two weeks since, and the qualms only grew louder when St. Francis torched the Wildcats for 42 points, including 28 in the third quarter alone. Against a Valley Christian team that could only run the ball, Manzanares was able to stack the box and rely on his experienced linebacker core to keep the Warriors off the scoreboard, but SHC will surely look deep against the St. Ignatius secondary.

“Our guys have just needed to gain experience,” Wildcats head coach John Regalia said when asked about his team’s pass defense. “We’ve faced some really good teams, and now it’s a matter of collectively putting it all together.”

While the Irish are clearly full of downfield weapons, executing can still be an issue. It’s what held SHC off the scoreboard until the final minutes of a Sept. 2 loss at Palma, and penalties proved fatal last week in a frustrating 24-17 loss at St. Francis.

“If we just execute, we’ll be alright,” first-year head coach Antoine Evans said.

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Friday at Kezar Stadium. Tickets are currently available for $15, though that price will rise to $20 on Friday. Admission is free for children ages 8 and under.

St. Ignatius holds a 1-0 lead in the multi-sport, best-of-five series for the vaunted trophy after winning the volleyball match on Sept. 14. SI has won the trophy in three of the past four years, with the teams tying during the 2019-20 school year after the baseball game was canceled. Sacred Heart Cathedral last held the trophy at the end of the 2017-18 season.

Click here for The Standard’s preview of the rest of this week’s high school football games, including the Battle of the Birds and Serra’s trip to Riordan with the Baxter Trophy on the line.