Even after a three-touchdown semifinal victory over the Lowell Cardinals, Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno still wasn’t satisfied.
“I’m looking for perfection, and it ain’t perfect. We fumbled twice,” he said after the 27-6 win. “It’s just a joke. It’s the 11th game of the season, you know what I mean? We got a good group of guys who are gonna play for each other, but we need to turn it up for the next week.”
Next week is the 98th Turkey Day Game, the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) football championship. It’ll be the Mustangs fourth straight appearance, and their third straight against Balboa.
While Ferrigno was understandably frustrated with the two fumbles, top-seeded Lincoln (8-3) still punished the Cardinals on the ground, running for 313 yards. Jamelle Newman and Ricky Underwood each found the end zone twice. Underwood also intercepted two passes, victimizing a Cardinals offense that struggled to move the ball through the air without sophomore quarterback Angelo Ornelas, who broke his collarbone last week against Balboa.
The Mustangs led just 7-6 at halftime on Newman’s 53-yard touchdown run, but took control in the third as Newman scored again on a 5-yard run and Underwood found the end zone from 42 yards out. Underwood capped off the scoring with a 3-yard run, ensuring a strong finish to the day despite a shaky opening.
Underwood’s fumble at the 4-yard line set No. 4 Lowell (3-7) up to take the lead early in the second quarter. Nathan Phuong, serving as the passing half of the Cardinals’ two-QB system with Ornelas out, found Anthony Irias for a 34-yard touchdown.
The shaky start and solid response represented Lincoln’s week in a microcosm.
“I think they were a little full of themselves during the week,” Ferrigno said. “I think we took care of it yesterday, and that’s why they came out and played hard.”
The Cardinals never made another serious scoring threat. Lincoln adapted to handle the double wing attack and shut down a Lowell passing attack that seemed to miss Ornelas more and more as the game went on.
“We were able to make some adjustments in the second half, and it proved pretty well,” Ferrigno said.
As usual, the Mustangs ended up controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and it showed in their rushing totals. Underwood ran 13 times for 109 yards, while Newman finished with an even 100 yards on just nine carries. Fullback Diego Cristerna (five carries-32 yards) and quarterback Michael Simmons (four carries-57 yards) rounded out the punishing ground attack, which dictated the pace despite Underwood’s ball security issues.
“It was a little shaky, but I had to pick my head up and keep playing for my teammates,” Underwood said. “My teammates wasn’t worried about it; they was telling me to keep my head up, keep playing.”
He’ll keep playing next week as he tries to add a Turkey Day victory and city championship to his legacy. Underwood didn’t have a chance to compete for a title as a sophomore, with the season canceled due to the Covid pandemic and the ensuing restrictions imposed by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). His team made it to the championship game last year, but fell to Balboa, 21-0.
That same Balboa team returns to the title game after a 17-14 win over No. 2 Washington on Thursday. Last year, the Buccaneers ousted Lowell in the semis. The Cardinals have now appeared in three consecutive postseasons, but haven’t won a playoff game since 2006.
“In the 2000s, our kids were a little more versed in football,” head coach Danny Chan said when asked about the drought. “It takes a lot of steadying and loving the game. In other sports, you can show up and just play. In football, you have to put the time in.”
“The guys need to watch a game, know how it flows and visualize themselves in that. If you talk to Lincoln kids, Lincoln kids know the whole lingo. We don’t really have that.”
The Cardinals finished the season with just three wins at the varsity level., but the JV unit posted a 3-1 league record while establishing consistency with the same double wing scheme that the varsity squad uses.
“There has to be some consistency in how we do things,” Chan said. “We were pretty consistent back then just because the younger and older program were kind of doing the same thing.”
The varsity team ran a spread offense in 2019 and 2021 to fit its personnel, but shifting back to the old approach came with growing pains this year.
“I think our culture is a little wonky,” Chan acknowlegded after his 18th season as head coach came to a close.
Lowell hasn’t won the city championship since Chan’s first season, and the Cardinals haven’t played in the Turkey Day Game since his third year. The lack of titles hasn’t discouraged him, though.
“I gotta admit, we’re one of the only sports at Lowell that doesn’t get a bunch of championships. We actually have to coach up these kids. Every other sport, those kids have played it before,” he said. “It’s fun for me to do it because we’re always making new teams and trying to get them to a certain level. That’s why I keep doing it. I don’t really do it for championships, obviously. Hopefully they’ll figure out how to get over the top, get beyond themselves to play at such a focused level that they’re confident in everything we do. I think that’s what Lincoln has.”
Lincoln also had superior size and strength that dictated the pace on Thursday afternoon. Ed Asiasi was Lowell’s sole lineman who could physically line up with the Mustangs, who dominated the trenches with the likes of Gabriel Tato and Deion Solis.
“We’re not getting those Jimmy and Joes,” Chan said. “I think they stepped it up and equaled our physicality.”