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Central Coast section playoffs begin: San Francisco Football Week 12 preview

Sacred Heart Cathedral running back Jerry Mixon Jr. (6) looks to avoid a tackle from St. Francis safety Declan Quinn (22) during the Fightin’ Irish’s 24-17 loss to the Lancers in Mountain View on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

Veterans Day weekend is one of the rare weeks where not all of San Francisco’s high school football teams are on the same schedule. The public schools, which play in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA), finish their regular season this week, while the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) schools are entering the first week of the Central Coast Section (CCS) Playoffs.

While the overwhelming majority of schools are already into postseason play, with many section beginning their playoff runs a week ago, the AAA serves as its own section and has just a four-team postseason, which begins next Thursday. The Oakland Athletic League (OAL) is the only other section that’s small enough to operate on a similar schedule.

CCS Division I Quarterfinal: No. 7 Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish (6-4) @ No. 2 St. Francis Lancers (7-3), Fri., Nov. 11, 7 p.m.

Sacred Heart Cathedral quarterback Aidan McGrath (11) hands off to running back Silas Bernardino (42) during the Fightin' Irish's 24-17 loss to St. Francis in Mountain View on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Mona Fowler

The Fightin’ Irish will get the rematch with the Lancers that they’ve been craving, but St. Francis comes in on a six-game winning streak. Since a pair of one-score wins against SHC and Valley Christian, the Lancers’ last three wins have come by an average of 27 points, fueled by the return of sophomore running back Kingston Keanaaina and the emergence of linebacker Ofa Tuiileila. Keanaaina’s presence in the backfield has allowed his older brother, Keala, to put more of his focus on defense, where he serves as St. Francis’ top safety.

SHC is in unfamiliar territory this year, looking to bounce back from a lopsided defeat. Before Saturday’s 43-7 loss at Serra, the Fightin’ Irish hadn’t lost a game by more than two scores all season, and the running clock that was used for the fourth quarter was the first they had seen in any game, win or lose, since Nov. 20, 2021.

Quarterback Aidan McGrath is a game-time decision for the Irish after hurting his knee in the third quarter against Serra. St. Francis started sophomore Aaron Knapp under center the last two weeks while Matt Dougherty Jr. was in concussion protocol.

CCS Division II Quarterfinal: No. 7 Half Moon Bay Cougars (7-3) @ No. 2 St. Ignatius Wildcats (4-6), Fri., Nov. 11, 7 p.m.

St. Ignatius linebacker Alex Hartigan (10) tackles Riordan running back JahKeenan Williams-Choa during the second quarter of the Wildcats' 35-14 win over the Crusaders in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 2022. | Courtesy Paul Ghiglieri/St. Ignatius Athletics

After weeks of facing modern spread offenses, the Wildcats will need to be ready for an old-school grind-it-out game against a Half Moon Bay team that runs a unique version of the triple option. The Cougars rely on blocking schemes that often resemble a rugby scrum, combined with sneaky handoffs in the backfield, to go on long drives that can burn in excess of nine minutes. The most difficult part of stopping HMB is trying to keep the Cougars out of fourth-and-short situations. When the Cougar offense is clicking, it’s almost impossible to stop them for a loss, so even if they aren’t rattling off huge chunks of yardage, they put themselves into manageable third- and fourth-down situations.

Quarterback Liam Harrington and running back PJ Modena lead the way for a Half Moon Bay team that turned heads with a Sept. 30 win over Menlo-Atherton, but enters the postseason on the heels of a surprising 36-29 loss to Terra Nova in the Skull Game. Struggles in pass coverage have been HMB’s biggest Achilles’ heel.

Lowell Cardinals (3-5, 3-2 AAA) @ Balboa Buccaneers (4-5, 3-2), Fri., Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m.

Lowell quarterback Angelo Ornelas (10) runs during the third quarter of the Cardinals' 33-15 win over Galileo in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Balboa’s win over Mission put any crazy tiebreaking scenarios to bed and locked the Cardinals and Buccaneers into the final two playoff spots. Friday’s game will decide third and fourth place, with the winner to face second-place Washington and the loser to face regular season champion Lincoln in next Thursday’s semifinals, both of which will be played at 1:30. Balboa ended Lowell’s season last year in the semis, overcoming six turnovers to win 21-14. Lowell last beat the Bucs in 2017, 40-20. Balboa went winless that season, and head coach Fred Velasquez returned to lead the program in 2018.

Mission Bears (2-6, 2-3 AAA) @ Washington Eagles (7-2, 4-1), Fri., Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m.

Washington quarterback James Mertz gives pointers to backup Mason Fong (11) during the second quarter of the Eagles' 49-0 loss to Lincoln in San Francisco on Oct. 29, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

With Mission officially out of playoff contention and Washington locked into the second seed, Friday’s game will be about the future for both the Bears and the Eagles. Yes, it will be Washington’s Senior Day, but junior Mason Fong is expected to start at quarterback with James Mertz still recovering from a knee injury against a sophomore-heavy Bears team that’s taking a rare hiatus from the postseason, missing the field for the first time since 2009.

Burton Pumas (0-6, 0-5 AAA) @ Galileo Lions (0-9, 0-5), Fri., Nov. 11, 1:30 p.m.

Galileo quarterback Nate Chynoweth (15) scrambles during the second quarter of the Lions' 33-15 loss to Lowell in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

In what Galileo head coach Nick Naudain jokingly called “the battle of the beatens,” one of the Pumas or Lions will close out their 2022 season with a long-awaited victory. Last year’s game, a 42-40 Galileo win highlighted by a third quarter where the teams combined for 48 points, also served as the lone game won by either program in 2021.

Each team is coming off a high water mark for points in a game on the season; Burton put up 14 in the second half in last week’s loss to Lincoln, while Galileo scored twice in the second quarter and briefly led in a 33-15 defeat at Lowell.

CCS Division I Quarterfinal: No. 8 Palma Chieftains (8-2) @ No. 1 Serra Padres (10-0), Sat., Nov. 12, 1 p.m.

Serra wide receiver Jayden Weber (2) escapes Riordan cornerback Zachary Jones (3) during the second quarter of the Padres' 45-7 win over the Crusaders in San Francisco on Oct. 15, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Palma drew the unenviable eighth ranking in the CCS and a first-round date with the lone unbeaten team in the entire section. The Chieftains last faced the Padres in 2014 in a consolation game that had been introduced to the CCS Open Division that season. Having been eliminated the week earlier, both teams treated the game as a scrimmage, and Serra forfeited the following week to Milpitas. The Padres were initially handed a two-year playoff ban, which was reduced to a single season the following September. Serra head coach Patrick Walsh’s decision to forfeit that game helped lead to the section doing away with meaningless consolation games a year later.

CCS Division I Quarterfinal: No. 6 Mitty Monarchs (7-3) @ No. 3 Los Gatos Wildcats (8-2), Fri., Nov. 11, 7 p.m.

Mitty quarterback Wills Towers (1) surveys the field during the Monarchs' 34-13 win over Riordan in Los Altos Hills on Oct. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Daniel Haniger

Fans in Santa Clara County will eschew their holiday weekend plans to see the Monarchs visit the Wildcats at Helm Field on Friday night in a game with tons of local intrigue. Mitty head coach Danny Sullivan is a Los Gatos alum, and the schools draw from overlapping areas and, on occasion, even the same families. Gavin Ripp, a junior on Mitty’s basketball team, transferred from Los Gatos, where his older brother, Jake, starred on the gridiron. Jake is now a linebacker at Boise State.

Friday night will also provide a shot at redemption for the Wildcats after they had their hearts ripped out in a 6-3 matchup last year, falling to Bellarmine on Thomas Di Vittorio’s 94-yard pick-six in the final minute. It was the Wildcats’ only loss of the 2021 season. This year, they’ve fallen to Orange County powerhouse Corona del Mar and Sacred Heart Prep.

CCS Division II Quarterfinal: No. 5 Bellarmine Bells (4-6) @ No. 4 Menlo-Atherton Bears (5-5), Fri., Nov. 11, 7 p.m.

Riordan's Zion Wells (11) helps tackle Bellarmine running back Riley Paran (4) during the second quarter of Riordan's 3-0 loss to the Bells in San Francisco on Oct. 1, 2022. | Courtesy Ryan Garcia/Riordan Athletics

When these two teams met on Aug. 27, Bellarmine jumped out to a 20-0 lead before Jurrion Dickey led Menlo-Atherton to victory in his first game in a Bears uniform. As much excitement as there was surrounding the Oregon commit, he only played in three more games, and has missed the last six due to a knee injury. Without him, the Bears are 2-4. Bellarmine, meanwhile, overcame a 19-7 third-quarter deficit last week, scoring the final 30 points to beat Valley Christian on Senior Night.

Other Noteworthy Bay Area Games

With playoffs underway in both the CCS and North Coast Section (NCS), there’s no shortage of enticing matchups over the course of the three-day weekend.

The action kicks off on Thursday night in CCS Division II when top-seeded Wilcox (9-1) hosts No. 8 Lincoln-San Jose (9-1) in the area’s only weeknight playoff game. A late change in rankings dropped Sacred Heart Prep (9-1) to fifth in Division I, meaning the Gators will have to hit the road to face No. 4 Salinas (9-1) at The Pit. No. 4 Burlingame (5-5) hosts No. 5 Hollister (5-5) in Division III, a rematch of a 2021 Division II Quarterfinal that the Haybalers won in overtime after a series of controversial calls. Also in Division III, No. 3 Menlo (5-5) hosts No. 6 King’s Academy (8-2) on Saturday afternoon. Menlo won the first meeting 31-6, but TKA has won eight straight games since that Sept. 3 defeat.

While the CCS’ “competitive equity” format generally creates exciting first-round games at the expense of giving top teams an easier path to a title, the NCS primarily sets its brackets based on enrollment, with adjustments made for team strength over recent years. That means fewer tantalizing first-round matchups, but it typically helps ensure top teams will reach championship games.

Perhaps this week’s most exciting NCS matchup isn’t as intriguing for the on-field product as it is for the narratives, as No. 2 Pittsburg (9-1) hosts No. 7 Antioch (4-6) in The Open Division/Division 1 field. The Pirates already beat the Panthers last week in the 104th Big Little Game, even with Miami-bound quarterback Jaden Rashada out sick. The winner will play in next week’s Open Division Championship Game, presumably against De La Salle (7-3), and the loser of the Open Division Championship plays in the Division 1 Championship the following week, effectively allowing the NCS to send its two best teams on to regional and state bowls.

Crosstown rivals Northgate (6-4) and Las Lomas (5-5) will meet in an all-Walnut Creek matchup in NCS Division 3. Fourth-seeded Las Lomas beat the Broncos on the road in the regular season, 34-7. Division 6 has a Catholic school showdown, with No. 2 Moreau Catholic (7-3) welcoming in No. 7 Salesian (5-5), last year’s Division 6 champion.