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The SF public school football playoffs start tomorrow. Here’s what you need to know

Lincoln’s defense swarms Balboa running back Dontae Allen-Wilson (8) during the first quarter of the Mustangs’ 21-7 win over the Buccaneers in San Francisco, Calif. on Oct. 1, 2022. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

San Francisco’s public schools officially begin their postseason on Thursday afternoon, with the top four teams in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) all coming in with something to prove.

Lincoln hosts Lowell and Washington hosts Balboa in Thursday’s semifinals. Both games kick off at 1:30 p.m., while most students are still in class. The winners will advance to the 98th Turkey Day Game, set for 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day at Kezar Stadium.

Unlike in past years, when there’s been a clear favorite and set of challengers, all four playoff teams can enter with a chip on their shoulders.

Top-seeded Lincoln (7-3, 6-0 AAA) went unbeaten in league play for a fourth season in a row, but the Mustangs are playing with a sense of unfinished business after losing last year’s Turkey Day Game, 21-0 to Balboa. Second-seeded Washington (8-2, 5-1) posted its best regular season win total since 2011. That 2011 team was the last Eagles team to reach the playoffs at all, and the school hasn’t won on Thanksgiving since 2010. Balboa (5-5, 4-2) may be the defending champion, but the Buccaneers finished third in the regular season, losing to both Lincoln and Washington. The Buccaneers will have an immediate chance to avenge one of those losses when they return to Washington on Thursday. Lowell (3-6, 3-3) is the fourth seed, and the Cardinals are making their third consecutive postseason appearance, their last playoff victory came in 2006.

The Cardinals played Lincoln tough in the regular season, losing 27-16. The 11-point margin was the Mustangs’ closest in league play, but Lowell will come into Thursday’s rematch shorthanded after quarterback Angelo Ornelas broke his collarbone last week against Balboa. Ornelas was the passing half of a two-quarterback system, while Tomas La Sala handled most of the running plays. La Sala will need to take on an even more significant role in order for the Cardinals to beat Lincoln for the first time since 2011.

Washington quarterback James Mertz (7) tries to fire off a pass amidst pressure from Lowell's Alvin Ikoku (62) during the second quarter of the Eagles' 52-34 win over the Cardinals in San Francisco, Calif. on Oct. 14, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Washington also has injury concerns entering the postseason. Quarterback James Mertz was hurt at the end of his team’s first meeting with Balboa and missed the Eagles’ final two regular season games. He’s a game-time decision, as is running back Tommy Mayfield-Commer (ankle) after getting hurt in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over Mission. The Eagles did get a huge boost on defense last week with the return of defensive end Elyjah Qasevakatini.

Balboa's Nick Wong (2) tackles Washington kick returner Benjamin Nguyen (26) during the first quarter of the Buccaneers' 22-0 loss to the Eagles in San Francisco, Calif. on Oct. 21, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

Regardless of who’s healthy, the Eagles will have to deal with a Balboa team that’s finally starting to piece it all together. The Bucs played their cleanest game of the season last week in a 35-26 win over Lowell, with Dontae Allen-Wilson finding the end zone twice and Noah DeGroat scoring on a 50-yard run.

As for San Francisco’s private schools, Sacred Heart Cathedral was eliminated by St. Francis last week and Riordan missed the playoffs. Stuart Hall will host Calistoga in a North Coast Section (NCS) 8-man semifinal on Friday night at Kezar Stadium. St. Ignatius will host Aptos on Friday in a Central Coast Section (CCS) Division II Semifinal on Friday, which The Standard will preview tomorrow.