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Why are SF’s high school football playoffs on a Thursday afternoon?

Fans watch the Burton Pumas face the Galileo Lions at George White Field in San Francisco on Nov. 11, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Unlike most of their counterparts from around the Bay Area, San Francisco public school athletes won’t get to play postseason football games in front of packed crowds on Friday night.

The Academic Athletic Association (AAA), which serves as the sporting arm of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), has its semifinal games scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Top-seeded Lincoln (7-3, 6-0 AAA) will play host to No. 4 Lowell (3-6, 3-3 AAA). Defending champion Balboa (5-5, 4-2 AAA) finished third and will visit No. 2 Washington (8-2, 5-1).

Weekday afternoon kickoffs are detrimental to attendance for every possible demographic. Students don’t get out of class until 3:40 at the earliest, and parents who work typical 9-to-5 jobs have to head out of the office early in order to see their children on the field.

Washington quarterback James Mertz prepares to pass during the Eagles' 23-22 loss to Irvington in San Francisco on Sept. 3, 2022. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

“It’s pretty frustrating,” said Washington quarterback James Mertz, whose Eagles finished second in the league and will be making their first playoff appearance since 2015.

So why don’t games kick off later?

The simple answer is that none of the SFUSD schools have proper stadium lights, and once Daylight Saving Time ends, afternoon games kick off at 1:30 to ensure their completion with sufficient daylight.

“We used to kick off late-season games at 2 p.m., but we had some close calls,” said former AAA commissioner Don Collins, who built the 2022 schedule as one of his final acts before his retirement. “Games are taking longer with teams passing more, and if you have something like a long injury delay, you’re really racing against the clock.”

A 2019 semifinal between Mission and Balboa that kicked off at 2 p.m. barely finished before darkness consumed the field after 25 penalties stretched the game well beyond three hours.

As for playing on Thursday instead of Friday, the championship game has been played on Thanksgiving since its inception in 1924, and has long been known as the Turkey Day Game. While state rules ban teams from playing more than twice in eight days, the AAA mandates that teams must take five days off between games. With those stricter guidelines, semifinals are played on Thursday to leave Friday as a contingency day, should a game need to be postponed for something like poor field conditions or fail to finish before darkness falls.

“Having lights would make things so much easier,” Washington head coach Mike Ramos said. “We’d have more practice time and bring in money with better crowds, and it would give kids something to do on Friday nights. Our basketball games start later (typically at 5:30), and they draw much better crowds, plus the players can get some of their homework done beforehand.”

Game times aren’t the only challenge for schools without lights. Senate Bill 328, which bans high schools from starting classes before 8:30 a.m., went into effect statewide this year. In turn, practices can’t start until at least 3:40. At Washington, players typically arrive at the locker rooms by 4 and hit the field around 4:15.

“Everything’s very condensed this time of year,” Ramos said. “Since the clocks changed, we get on the field for 90 minutes at most. Some things that we want to run through six times, we only get to do them once or twice. If guys have questions, I tell them to ask me in the locker room after.”

Galileo is the only district school with any sort of field lighting, and those don’t illuminate high enough of a space above the field to allow players to track a kickoff or punt through the air. St. Ignatius is the only school with permanent lighting in the entire city, and those lights were only installed after years of wrangling with neighbors. The only other venue that can host nighttime football games is Kezar, which serves as the home field for both Mission and Sacred Heart Cathedral. Kezar did host semifinal doubleheaders for a few years during the 2000s, but it wasn’t financially viable to continue.

“We’re entitled to free use of Kezar without having to charge for admission in the daytime,” Collins said. “If we use it at night, we have to pay to use the stadium, and we have to charge for admission. We’d have to draw very well to offset those costs and break even, and we weren’t getting enough fans to do it.”

Lowell quarterback Angelo Ornelas (10) fires a pass during the third quarter of the Cardinals' 23-6 win over Mission in San Francisco on Sept. 30, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Mission’s home games are played during the afternoon. SHC, which plays in the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) and Central Coast Section (CCS), plays home games at night and charges for admission. Stuart Hall hosted an 8-man North Coast Section (NCS) playoff game at Kezar last Friday night, and will do so again this week.

Other AAA teams used to occasionally play home games at Kezar. The venue was the longtime host for Lowell and Washington’s annual Battle of the Birds, but that game was moved to home sites and played in the daytime after years of low attendance.

The early kickoffs also mean students have to miss class time, but that’s commonplace at all schools. Even at schools that have lights, junior varsity football players have to leave class early on game days with 4 p.m. or 4:30 kickoffs. Early release from classes is also common for spring sport athletes; very few high school baseball fields have lights.

Thanksgiving High School Football: A Unique Tradition

Playing on Thanksgiving Day has its own set of inconveniences, but the tradition that accompanies it makes up for the headaches.

“It’s unreal,” Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno said. “I’ve been fortunate to be there a lot. With the history of San Francisco and the history of Kezar, it’s a really special opportunity.”

While family football games in the backyard or at a local park are commonplace on Thanksgiving, actually high school games on the holiday are a tradition that’s fallen by the wayside in many other cities. Burlingame and San Mateo used to play their annual Little Big Game on Thanksgiving, but when the end of November became devoted to playoff games, the rivalry was moved to the final week of the regular season, one of the first two weeks of November. One of the last holdouts was the Big Bone Game between San Jose and Lincoln-San Jose, a game that continued to kick off on the special Thursday morning until 2019. Even that game was ultimately moved to Labor Day week so that the teams could compete in the postseason.

It effectively leaves the San Francisco championship game as the only Thanksgiving high school football game in the state, but the games played to earn the right to compete on the grand stage will likely be played in near-empty stadiums.