Years from now, when San Francisco football fans gather at Kezar Pub or one of the West Portal bars with high school football helmets lining the walls, they’ll remember Balboa and Lincoln’s dominance over the Academic Athletic Association (AAA).
They’ll reminisce about Luis Contreras’ 40-carry performance that helped Lincoln secure back-to-back titles in 2019, and they’ll talk about do-it-all quarterback Ben Norori leading Balboa to a 2021 Turkey Day Game victory, the Buccaneers’ first city championship since 1984.
One thing fans haven’t been able to look back on in recent years, though, is a championship game thriller. The Buccaneers and Mustangs have had their share of electric regular season games, but both of their recent Turkey Day clashes have been methodical, low-scoring battles won by defenses. In both games, the outcome was decided by the final minutes, and the victorious coach received his Gatorade bath before the final seconds ticked off the clock. In fact, the Turkey Day Game hasn’t been decided by a single score since 2015, when Mission stopped Balboa on a two-point conversion with 1:22 left for a 14-13 win.
Considering that Balboa and Lincoln have typically played close games since Fred Velasquez returned for his second run as the Buccaneers’ head coach, Thursday’s game is a prime candidate to go down to the last play.
As the top seed and the winner of a 21-7 regular season meeting on Oct. 1, Lincoln (8-3) enters as the favorite. Should the Mustangs win, it would be their third Turkey Day victory in the last four editions. The one exception? Last year’s 21-0 defeat.
The Buccaneers have made massive improvements since that Oct. 1 loss, though. Last Thursday, Balboa (6-5) squeaked out a 17-14 road win over second-seeded Washington (8-3) to return to the championship game, beating an Eagles team that had shut them out on Oct. 21.
Since that 22-0 defeat, Balboa’s season has taken a turn for the better, particularly over the last two weeks. The Buccaneers will enter Kezar Stadium on a three-game winning streak. The first of those three was hardly glamorous, as Balboa had to overcome a ludicrous 18 penalties to beat Mission 14-0. The real change came in the following week, which culminated with a 35-26 win over Lowell to close the regular season.
“A lot of it comes with experience,” Balboa head coach Fred Velasquez said. “We have three guys that have never played offensive line before. We also simplified our offense so that we could play faster.”
Balboa didn’t commit a single turnover in last week’s semifinal win, illustrating quarterback Edwin Maiava’s comfort in the system. Maiava only took snaps in the double wing formation before Norori graduated, but has adapted to his new role over the course of the season, a process that was slowed when a shoulder injury kept him out of two non-league games.
Meanwhile, the Mustangs have won seven games in a row, and completed a fourth straight 6-0 run through the AAA league schedule. Since the start of the 2018 season, Lincoln has won 30 of 31 games against crosstown foes. The one loss? Thanksgiving Day, 2021.
Like Balboa, Lincoln has made a change at quarterback over the course of the season, putting Michael Simmons under center and moving freshman Latu Manumua to tight end and defensive end. Don’t expect Simmons to throw much — he’s attempted just 11 passes on the season, and Lincoln has only thrown 47 all year as a team — but his role is nonetheless important.
“Our quarterback has to be a level-headed individual who knows where everybody should be,” Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno said. “Both of our guys have done that for us this year.”
Most of Lincoln’s playbook consists of runs by either Jamelle Newman or Ricky Underwood. Underwood missed seven games with a broken collarbone and played sparingly in the final two games of the regular season, but averages 8.7 yards per carry. Newman isn’t far off at 6.6, and the junior has rushed for a team-leading 13 touchdowns.
While Newman, Underwood and Balboa’s Dontae Allen-Wilson will be in the spotlight as main ball carriers, the 98th Turkey Day Game will likely be won in the trenches, as has often been the case between Lincoln and Balboa. Nifae Tinofili Shul-Cassidy was a force for the Bucs in their semifinal win, while Deion Solis and Gabriel Tato have been monsters for Lincoln all year.
“Whoever controls the line of scrimmage usually controls the game,” Ferrigno said. “That’s true of any football game.”
Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. at Kezar Stadium. The game will be broadcast at NFHSNetwork.com, which requires a subscription. Tickets for tomorrow’s game, as well as all other AAA championship events, are only being sold online at GoFan.co. Fans are strongly urged to buy tickets in advance to expedite entry; admission is $7 for adults and $5 for students.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]