For the second straight year, the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) football champion has been awarded a bye directly into a state championship game.
The California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) announced pairings and divisions for its regional and state championships on Sunday, and the AAA champion Lincoln Mustangs will be waiting two weeks before they play one final game.
The Mustangs will host the winner of Crenshaw (6-7) and Whittier Christian (10-4) on Saturday, Dec. 10, in the CIF Division 7-A Championship Game. Going by computer rankings and the CIF’s “competitive equity” system, 7-A is the lowest of the 15 state championship divisions, meaning the Mustangs were given the lowest ranking of any Northern California section champ.
Only two other Northern California section champs won’t be playing in a regional final. Serra advances directly to the Open Division Championship and will face St. John Bosco-Bellflower on Dec. 10 at Saddleback Valley College. Pinole Valley has a bye in Division 7-AA, and since Southern California representative Mendota also has a bye, the two will meet for the championship this Saturday in Mendota (Fresno County). Lincoln (9-3) will wait for a week to face the winner of the Southern California 7-A Game.
“We had a bye week at the end of the regular season, so we’re used to this,” head coach Phil Ferrigno said of the wait. “We don’t know who we’re playing yet, so we’re just gonna work on our fundamentals.”
This marks the fifth time the AAA champ has been sent to the lowest division since the CIF adopted an expanded championship format in 2015. In the other two seasons, the champion has played in the second-lowest division. Of the four AAA teams to win state titles, two (Lincoln in 2018 and Balboa in 2021) had regional byes.
The extra weeks of practice aren’t just beneficial now. Getting reps in for underclassmen will pay off next year after the likes of Xavier Solares and Ricky Underwood graduate.
“This is a great opportunity to see what these guys can do. It’s good to keep them around,” Ferrigno said. “You get to talk to them about their lives, their grades, everything. We teach them to have a relationship with the teachers.”
It’s Lincoln’s fourth trip into the state playoffs. The 2016 Mustangs lost a Division 6-AA play-in game to Amador. In 2018, an undefeated Mustang unit capped off a perfect season by beating Orange Glen-Escondido for the 6-A crown. The following year, Lincoln was placed in Division 7-AA and beat Mariposa County in Merced to win the Northern California title, 21-14. A week later, the Mustangs used a generational performance from running back Luis Contreras to defeat Gardena and repeat as state champs.
“The last time we traveled for a NorCal championship was one of the best wins of my career,” Ferrigno said. “It got our kids out of their comfort zone. We’ll take it as it comes, though.”
Calpreps.com has the Mustangs favored against both of their potential opponents. Their foe will be determined in the Southern California 7-A Championship, which will be played at Crenshaw on Saturday, Dec. 3. Whittier Christian, located just down the road from Whittier in La Habra, across the line into Orange County, has 500 students. Crenshaw, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District that has served as a home for dozens of future NFLers, including Brandon Mebane and De’Anthony Thomas, currently enrolls between 675 and 750 kids. At the start of the new millennium, the school’s enrollment sat around 3,000.