When the Balboa Buccaneers took the field at Washington for a regular season game on Oct. 21, they made a boisterous entrance through blue and orange smoke, only to leave with an embarrassing shutout loss.
At the same field on Thursday afternoon, they quietly walked out of their locker room together, then played arguably their cleanest game of the year, beating the Eagles 17-14 in an Academic Athletic Association (AAA) Semifinal to earn a third consecutive appearance in the Turkey Day Game, which serves as San Francisco’s public school football championship.
“We weren’t gonna do all the talking like we did last time,” captain Santiago Alvarez said. “We came out with confidence and executed all our plays.”
Balboa (6-5) had been plagued by turnovers throughout the season, but didn’t commit any on Thursday.
“We were very inexperienced on both sides of the ball, and the new guys had to catch up,” head coach Fred Velasquez said of his team’s progress. “We felt that we were getting better every week. We’re still not where we want to be, and we’re definitely not last year’s team, but this year, they have their own identity.”
Contributions from up and down the roster are an essential part of that identity. While Dontae Allen-Wilson (25 carries-121 yards) and Nifae Tinofili Shul-Cassidy (two tackles for loss) were excellent throughout the day, the biggest plays in the fourth quarter came from two Buccaneers who had largely served as role players. Nick Wong’s 41-yard touchdown run on a double reverse on third-and-21 gave third-seeded Balboa a 17-7 lead, and after Washington (8-3) had trimmed the lead to three, Marcus Sagote’s tackle with 4:27 left forced a turnover on downs. Three first downs, all on Allen-Wilson runs, ended the game.
Every conceivable emotion was on display as the final seconds ticked off. Much of Balboa’s team waved goodbye to Washington’s fans and players while a few Eagles players flung their helmets away in disgust, but quarterback Edwin Maiava immediately ran to the Washington sideline to congratulate and console his adversaries, including quarterback James Mertz.
“That’s my guy right there. He was my 7-on-7 quarterback,” Maiava said of Mertz. “I respect him so much, and his dad too. I know a lot of players on that team. They’re good guys. They’re gonna go far in life.”
The Eagles went far on the field, posting their highest win total and first playoff appearance since 2011, but they ultimately fell short of a return to the Turkey Day Game. Injuries certainly didn’t do them any favors. Mertz had missed the final two regular season games after hurting his knee on a sack at the end of the prior meeting with Balboa, and was limited to 5-of-11 passing for 76 yards on Thursday.
“If he wasn’t hurt, he would have thrown for over 200 yards today,” Velasquez said.
Mertz revealed after the game that he had played through a torn ACL. Tommy Mayfield-Commer hurt his ankle in last week’s regular season finale against Mission and was limited to only playing defense in Thursday’s semifinal. He traditionally serves as the power back alongside speedster Dhiraj Gurung.
Gurung finished with 140 offensive yards and another 114 on three kick returns. He answered Wong’s touchdown with a 68-yard kick return, and the Eagles needed just three plays to get back to within a score, cashing in on Mertz’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Felix Mamrikov with 9:33 left.
Balboa then went three-and-out after back-to-back holding penalties forced the Buccaneers into a third-and-31, but flipped the field on a 39-yard Louis Sarat punt. Alvarez and Tinofili Shul-Cassidy wrapped Gurung up for a loss on third down, and Alvarez got into the backfield on fourth-and-7. Mertz still managed to get a pass away, which Gurung secured with one hand, but Sagote chased him down three yards short of the first down marker.
While Allen-Wilson had five of the seven carries to help salt the game away, the other two runs went to Enson Vaifale, a freshman playing in his first varsity game after spending the season on the JV team.
“He’s a very experienced football player,” Velasquez said of Vaifale, who ran 10 times for 37 yards. “He’s played for the San Francisco Warriors youth football organization since he was six.”
Vaifale’s 14-yard run set up Balboa’s first score, a 32-yard Eric Solorzano field goal with 9:06 remaining in the first half, and he ran three times on an 11-play drive that put the Bucs up 10-0 in the third, a sequence in which Maiava converted a fourth-and-1 and hit Sarat for a 19-yard gain on a third-and-10. Allen-Wilson finished off the drive with a 1-yard plunge.
Considering how Balboa had played up to that point, that 10-0 lead looked insurmountable, but the two-score advantage lasted for all of two plays. Mertz hit Mamrikov for a 26-yard completion, and Gurung raced through a hole for a 55-yard touchdown.
A holding flag on the final play of the third quarter and a botched toss on the second play of the fourth left the Buccaneers facing a third-and-long, but Wong found paydirt on his lone carry of the day.
Wong and 19 other Balboa seniors, including two-way guard Jeremiah Pelesauma, will be playing in yet another Turkey Day Game next week. While most of his team was celebrating the victory, Pelesauma was overcome with emotion. Pelesauma dedicated his season to his father, who unexpectedly passed away due to heart failure in February.
It’ll be the second Turkey Day Game for most of Balboa’s seniors, though it’ll be the one and only chance for Sagote, who transferred from Galileo and made the tackle that helped secure his team’s championship berth. Conversely, it’ll be a third trip for Alvarez, who’s played on the varsity team since his freshman year.
“Everybody looks up to Turkey Day,” said Alvarez, who had three catches for 37 yards. “If you don’t make it to Turkey Day, you’re not seen as nothing.”
The Buccaneers will face a familiar championship opponent in Lincoln. The teams have split the last two championship games, with Balboa winning 21-0 last year. The Mustangs won this year’s regular season meeting, 21-7, back on Oct. 1.
Washington fell short of playing in the championship game for the first time since 2011, but the Eagles’ 22 seniors oversaw a massive transformation over their careers. When head coach Mike Ramos took over before the 2019 season, his team went winless, with six shutout losses in nine games, and struggled to field 18 players each week.
“James and Dhiraj helped me build a program that these guys want to be a part of. We’ve become a program that other kids want to join. We’ve become a program that the students here want to watch again,” Ramos said. “This group of kids have helped me achieve my dream of turning the program around.”
Gurung took a Mertz dump-off 95 yards to the end zone in the second quarter, but it was negated by a blindside block. Penalties had already wiped out a 32-yard pass to Ayan Razzak and a 41-yard completion to Mamrikov on the prior two plays.
Not only will the Eagles have to replace Mertz and Gurung, they’ll have to replenish much of the defense as well. Rigo Hernandez had 2.5 tackles for loss on Thursday, and 310-pound Frank Alanis had 1.5.
“Our track coach told me four years ago that this team would be my first team, and I’ve taken that to heart,” Ramos said. “Not to say that I didn’t coach any players better or liked them any more, but this was my first team where they were my students that were in the program for all four years. This is a very special group to me.”
Mayfield-Commer and defensive end Quadir Jules will be among Washington’s key returners in 2023.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]