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The Bay versus LA: City pride on the line in Lincoln’s state championship game

Lincoln linebacker Diego Cristerna celebrates a tackle during the first quarter of the Mustangs' 44-7 victory over Balboa in the 98th Turkey Day Game, the Academic Athletic Association football championship, at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco on Nov. 24, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

The regional rivalry between the Bay Area and Los Angeles is represented through all sorts of sports matchups.

None are more famous than the clashes between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, but there are others to keep in mind. There’s the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers, and, in recent years, the Los Angeles Clippers. The San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams met last year in the NFC Championship Game and face off twice per year in the regular season. The Los Angeles Angels may actually play in Anaheim, but their American League West rivalry with the Oakland Athletics has seen its share of heated moments. Cal and Stanford’s games against USC and UCLA are high-profile events in almost every sport, and while the San Jose Sharks are currently rebuilding, their battles with the Los Angeles Kings are among the most popular games on the schedule.

Now fans can add the Lincoln Mustangs and Crenshaw Cougars to the list of Bay Area-Los Angeles sports rivalries.

The Mustangs’ pursuit for their third state football championship in the last five years will conclude on Saturday afternoon at Kezar Stadium when they host the Cougars in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 7-A Championship. The Mustangs are the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) and San Francisco Section champions, while the Cougars are the Los Angeles City Section Division III champs.

Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno speaks with quarterback Latu Manumua during the Mustangs' 43-14 win over Jefferson in a non-league football game in San Francisco on Aug. 26, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

“It’s a pretty cool deal,” head coach Phil Ferrigno said. “And we’re playing at Kezar, which was the site of so many great Niners-Rams games. Maybe some of the old greats will come out.”

It’ll be the third state championship game between SFUSD and LAUSD schools. San Francisco has a 2-0 lead in the series. Lincoln beat Gardena 35-26 in 2019, and Balboa thumped Taft last year, 43-0.

Don’t expect this one to be so easy, though.

“In our other two championship games, we were more physical,” Ferrigno said, alluding to the 2018 win over Orange Glen-Escondido and the 2019 win over Gardena, “but these guys are super athletic and super physical. I think we’re up for the challenge, though.”

Running back Andrew Wynn stars for the Cougars, sharing the backfield with quarterback Donce Lewis. While Wynn, Lewis and players like Lincoln running back Ricky Underwood will have opportunities to play at the next level, with plenty of strong junior college opportunities in both Southern California and the Bay Area, Saturday will be the last chance for many of the players on both sides to take the field in their careers.

“I’m always going to be coming back, but for these seniors, this might be their last time ever playing football,” Ferrigno said.

Both schools have state titles under their belts, though none of the current Mustangs or Cougars played in those games. Lincoln won Division 6-A in 2018 and 7-AA in 2019. Crenshaw won the Division 4-AA title in 2017, claiming a 46-43 thriller over Placer. The Cougars fell to De La Salle in the 2009 Open Division Championship Game, but the school’s enrollment has plummeted over the last 20 years. Private schools have poached local talent from the historically Black Hyde Park neighborhood, and LAUSD enrollment has declined, problems that were exacerbated by Covid and the district’s responses to the pandemic.

For Crenshaw and Lincoln to make it to a state championship game is a minor miracle. Both represent school districts that have been the target of criticism in cities that have developed negative reputations among much of the public in recent years. While none of the players from the two schools will have ever met face-to-face prior to Saturday’s game, they’re all walking similar paths. It’s a chance to restore pride in communities and school districts that have been punching bags for all sorts of reasons, some deserved, some not.

Some of the state’s top private schools, like Serra and St. John Bosco, will be meeting in televised games at Saddleback College’s shiny new stadium for titles in stronger divisions. But the game at Kezar will offer something truly special and unique, regardless of division. None of the kids at Lincoln or Crenshaw were recruited to attend their schools. They came from the neighborhoods, looking for a place to attend school with their friends and play some football in the process. In an age dominated by recruiting rankings and transfers, a big-city school full of local kids will get to call itself a champion.

The game will be televised online via the NFHS Network. Tickets are available online via Admission is $12 for the general public and $8 for students.