Make no mistake, the Balboa Buccaneers are traveling 103 miles to Oakdale with the intent to win.
But they’re also approaching the game with realistic expectations.
“We have 29 underclassmen and only half of our seniors have played,” head coach Fred Velasquez said. “In order to get better, we have to schedule better teams.”
Daunting non-league tests like the one planned for Friday night have been commonplace since Velasquez returned to the role of head coach at Balboa in 2018.
His 2019 team hosted Woodinville, which finished the season as the fifth-ranked team in the state of Washington. The Bucs lost, 55-0.
Three weeks later, they traveled to Santa Rosa to take on eventual California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 3-AA Champion Cardinal Newman and lost 35-6. The 2021 team took on similar challenges, including a 56-0 loss to Acalanes and a trek to Humboldt County to face Arcata, who handed Velasquez’s team a 58-26 beatdown.
“The first year, we faced teams that hadn’t won games in four or five years, and we didn’t want to do that with our program,” Velasquez said.
Jumping straight into the fire, as the Buccaneers will do on Friday night in Stanislaus County, has been instrumental in making Velasquez’s program successful.
He inherited a team that went winless in 2017, elevated it to a playoff appearance in 2018 and a Turkey Day Game appearance in 2019, both of which culminated in shutout losses to Lincoln. The Buccaneers flipped the script on the Mustangs in 2021, shutting them out on Thanksgiving Day at Kezar Stadium and proceeding to win the CIF Division 7-A Championship.
All of this has been by design. Including Saturday’s 31-7 loss to Skyline, Balboa has just a 3-7 non-league record under Velasquez but has gone 13-4 in Academic Athletic Association (AAA) games, with three of the four losses coming against Lincoln. The frontloaded schedule has created a pattern for the Buccaneers over the years: They take some early lumps, get underestimated while other teams put up gaudy records against inferior competition, then go on a strong run into the postseason.
“Last year, we lost our first three non-league games and then we went on a roll,” Velasquez explained. “It prepared us.”
A perennial power in the Valley Oak League and Division 3 of the Sac-Joaquin Section (SJS), which governs high school sports throughout the Sacramento, Stockton and Modesto areas, the Mustangs are 1-1 so far this season, beating longtime rival Sonora in overtime after erasing an 18-point deficit and losing 39-29 to Aptos. Mickey Merzon, son of head coach Trent Merzon, quarterbacks Oakdale and serves as a prominent figure in a run-heavy offense, flanked by backs Brian Delte, Jace Rau and Zach Stott.
“We want to get these guys game experience and take them to places where they see a live band and the town shuts down,” Velasquez said of the expected atmosphere in Oakdale, a true football town. “You’re under the lights and the student section is full. We want our San Francisco kids to see that.”
Friday night’s game at Oakdale’s stadium, affectionately called “The Corral” and known for its tri-tip sandwiches, kicks off at 7 p.m., meaning the Buccaneers will likely return to San Francisco around midnight.
Burlingame Panthers (2-0) @ Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish (1-1), Fri. Sept. 9, 7 p.m. at Kezar Stadium
An unexpected setback against Palma has the Fightin’ Irish hungrier than usual as they enter their final non-league contest with hopes of avenging last season’s 17-7 defeat to the Panthers. Burlingame graduated 25 seniors off of last year’s team and has minimal experience to draw on this year, save for linebacker Gio Joachin and running backs Lukas Habelt and Joey Nawrocki. Like last season, the Panthers opened with wins over Capuchino and American Canyon, but they won those games by a combined 11 points. In 2021, they beat the same two teams by 35 and 25. SHC enters Friday night desperately needing to find success in the run game, having averaged just 34 rushing yards across the first two weeks.
Riordan Crusaders (1-0) @ Tamalpais Red-Tailed Hawks (0-1), Sat. Sept. 10, 2 p.m.
Despite a 41-6 loss at Windsor (Sonoma County) to open the season, Riordan isn’t taking Tamalpais lightly. The Hawks put a scare into the Crusaders last year in San Francisco, losing just 15-8. Tam did graduate 21 seniors off last year’s roster, a team that reached the North Coast Section (NCS) Division 4 Semifinals before getting ousted by Marin Catholic, but the Hawks return quarterback Brayden Young and wide receiver/safety Jake Son, both juniors. Will Basnight had a 63-yard reception and Andrew Gordon had six catches for 78 yards in that season-opening road loss to the Jaguars.
St. Ignatius Wildcats (1-1) @ St. Mary’s-Stockton Rams (2-0), Fri. Sept. 9, 7:15 p.m.
Friday marks the second straight year in which the Wildcats will take on the Rams, and it won’t be an easy test. Despite graduating wide receiver Jadyn Marshall, now redshirting at UCLA, and defensive end Jahzon Jacks, who now suits up for Fresno State, St. Mary’s has reloaded, as great programs often do. The Rams handed rival Central Catholic-Modesto a 47-7 beatdown on the road in the Holy Bowl last week. Samson Hunkin starts at quarterback for St. Mary’s, and he’s got an exceptional target at his disposal in 3-star recruit Naseri Danielson. Asante Carter, who started as a sophomore, lines up at both running back and linebacker for Tony Franks’ squad.
El Camino Colts (0-2) @ Lincoln Mustangs (1-1), Sat. Sept. 10, 2 p.m.
Equine battles between the Colts and Mustangs have been a mainstay in non-league play over the last decade and change. Saturday will mark their 12th meeting since 2010, a contest that Lincoln enters with a six-game head-to-head winning streak. Diego Cristerna and the Lincoln defense will have to contend with 6-foot-3 wide receiver James Stam, who serves as the top target for quarterback Gio Carrara. El Camino is undersized on the lines, but the unit is anchored by an experienced two-way player in Chris Anguiano.
Denair Coyotes (1-1) @ Washington Eagles (1-1), Sat. Sept. 10, 2 p.m.
It’s not often a San Francisco public school team enters a game with more depth than an opponent, but that’ll be the case on Saturday when the Eagles welcome Denair to the Richmond district. The Coyotes, who will make the 111-mile trip from the outskirts of Turlock, have under 20 players on their roster, but they’re no pushovers. Low roster numbers have been a common theme in Anthony Armas’ eight years coaching his alma mater, and his team is full of two-way players that run a strong wing-T rushing attack, led by running back Isaac Villa-Martinez.
Mission Bears (0-1) @ Novato Hornets (2-0), Sat. Sept. 10, 2 p.m.
After winning just nine games across the prior six years, including a 20-game losing streak that lasted from their 2016 finale until their opening game in 2019, the Hornets are flying high under first-year head coach Joseph Simmons after a 2-0 start to the season, their first winning streak since a six-game stretch in 2014. Kai Patel found the end zone four times for Novato in last week’s 49-0 thrashing of Healdsburg, running for three touchdowns and returning an interception for a fourth. Both teams will be on level footing when it comes to rest, having each played last Saturday. Mission was dealt a significant blow in last week’s loss to Oakland Tech when quarterback Adrian Chavarria broke his wrist on the opening series, an injury that will keep him out for six weeks. While the Bears struggled to adapt to his absence on the fly, they’ve now had a week to practice without him and will turn to another sophomore, Diego Ramirez, to lead the offense.
Kennedy-Richmond Eagles (2-0) @ Galileo Lions (0-1), Sat. Sept. 10, 2 p.m.
Kennedy enters Saturday afternoon having allowed just nine points in wins over South San Francisco and Mills, two teams that sit at the bottom of the pecking order in San Mateo County. Any points at all would be a step forward for Galileo after last week’s 47-0 loss at Terra Linda, a game that fell apart just before halftime when the Trojans scored twice in the final minute. Two of Terra Linda’s first-half touchdowns came on pick-sixes, and the Eagles have an eager ballhawk of their own in Deondre Prim, who has a pair of touchdowns as a receiver and a pair of interceptions on defense. Daniel Acosta, another two-way player for Kennedy, has also recorded two interceptions in two games.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]