The Lincoln Mustangs will host the Balboa Buccaneers at 2 p.m. on Saturday to open Academic Athletic Association (AAA) play, marking the 12th meeting between the two schools since the start of the 2015 season.
“It’s been a heated rivalry forever,” Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno said.
This time feels a little different, though.
Yes, it’ll probably be the same sort of run-heavy, low-scoring affair that the two schools have played in recent years, likely decided by which team wins the turnover battle and avoids drive-killing penalties.
The difference lies in the footing on which the teams enter.
Balboa finally got the better of Lincoln last year in the Turkey Day Game, snapping an eight-game head-to-head losing streak to the Mustangs and ending Lincoln’s runs of two straight San Francisco championships and 23 straight wins over city opponents.
“They put us in our place last year,” Mustangs linebacker Diego Cristerna said. “We came in thinking we were the hotshots.”
Saturday presents an opportunity for Lincoln (1-3) to prove that last year’s Thanksgiving Day defeat was an aberration, rather than a signal of the changing of the guard. While the Mustangs have won just once so far this season, they’ve faced a strong schedule, including a visit to Windsor two weeks ago.
Balboa (1-3) has faced against top competition as well. The Buccaneers’ three losses have come against a Skyline team that played both Miramonte and Moreau Catholic close, an Oakdale team that regularly checks in as one of the finest in the Central Valley and a Livermore unit that’s off to a 5-0 start.
In a league where non-league results have no bearing on playoff positioning, the only downside to facing the kind of opponents that Lincoln and Balboa have scheduled is the injuries.
The Mustangs lost running back Ricky Underwood to a broken collarbone in his first game, and he’s still a couple of weeks from returning. The two-sport standout was just cleared to resume running in recent days.
Buccaneers quarterback Edwin Maiava suffered a shoulder injury in the season-opening loss to Skyline and missed the next two games before returning against Livermore.
Unlike last year, experience is on Lincoln’s side.
“We still haven’t found ourselves yet,” Balboa head coach Fred Velasquez said. “We have so many guys that have come from JV or transferred in that we haven’t found our team chemistry yet.”
There’s no better illustration of the lack of chemistry for Balboa than the constant barrage of penalties and turnovers that have plagued the Bucs through their first four games, something they’ll have to clean up in order to win on Saturday.
“It comes down to defense and turnovers,” Ferrigno said.
Defense has been inconsistent for the Mustangs thus far. The starters allowed just one score in a season-opening win over Jefferson, but each of Lincoln’s last three opponents has scored a minimum of 33 points. In a surprising loss to El Camino on Sept. 10, the visiting Colts scored all 33 in the first half.
Should Balboa win on Saturday, it’ll be the Buccaneers’ first regular season win over the Mustangs since 2010, a year in which Lincoln went winless. Both of Balboa’s victories over Lincoln in the last decade have come in the postseason.
“Lincoln’s always tough. They’ve been consistent every single year,” Velasquez commented. “They have discipline, aggressiveness and the will to make sure that they block. No matter who he has, they block well, every single year.”
Bellarmine Bells (2-2, 1-0 West Catholic Athletic League) @ Riordan Crusaders (3-1, 1-0), Sat. Oct. 1, 2 p.m.
Fans of modern, up-tempo football will love Saturday’s game between Bellarmine and Riordan, a battle of two young coaches that lead fast, pass-happy offense.
When Bellarmine hired Jalal Beauchman, a 2006 graduate of the school, in March 2020, he opened up an offense that had played smash-mouth double wing football for decades under Mike Janda. The new-look Bells spread the ball around, feeding weapons all over the field.
A similar change has taken place at Riordan with the hiring of Adhir Ravipati, who brought a spread attack much like the one he directed at Menlo-Atherton from 2015 through 2018. A school that ran up the middle on most of its offensive plays for years has finally started to utilize the whole field, taking advantage of tremendous speed at the receiver positions.
It’s been part of a broader change all around the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL), where six of the eight teams now utilize some form of spread offense. Much of Serra’s recent glory stemmed from longtime head coach Patrick Walsh scrapping the double wing, save for a few particular short-yardage situations.
St. Ignatius’ magical run to a share of the league title in 2019 came when the Wildcats put their faith in new offensive coordinator Mike Clark, quarterback Teddye Buchanan and top receiver Danny Ryan.
Riordan freshman QB Mike Mitchell Jr. has received tons of attention, and deservedly so. The 15-year-old threw for a 55-yard touchdown on the first pass of his career, and last week, he led the Crusaders to their first win over Valley Christian since 2006.
Breaking historical trends and fighting the history of being the “same old Riordan” has been a priority for Ravipati in his first year on the job, something he emphasized after a 35-7 loss to Sacred Heart Prep.
“We had a pretty long conversation the Monday after that game,” Ravipati said. “It was on all of us, the lack of fight that we had. We harped on it all week and the kids fought at Valley Christian.”
A win over Bellarmine would be an enormous step towards breaking those trends. The Crusaders are currently wearing a 20-game losing streak to the Bells, having last beaten them in 2000. Their last home win over Bellarmine came at Kezar Stadium in 1993.
Slowing Bellarmine won’t be easy, though. An injury to senior Nate Escalada, who plays both quarterback and safety, opened up a door for junior quarterback Parker Threatt, who had been lining up at wide receiver to begin the year.With Escalada now almost exclusively playing in the secondary, Threatt has taken full control of the offense. In last week’s 34-14 win over St. Ignatius, he threw for 219 yards, completing 22 of his 30 passes.
Threatt’s best target may not be one of the wideouts, though. Running back Ben Pfaff is a regular target on screens and wheel routes, and caught six passes for 67 yards against SI to go along with his three rushing touchdowns.
Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish (2-2, 0-1 WCAL) @ Valley Christian Warriors (1-3, 0-1), Sat. Oct. 1, 6 p.m.
Being scheduled as an opponent for a homecoming game is often taken as an insult, and it's not like the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin' Irish needed another chip on their shoulders.
Last year’s loss to Valley Christian was the most painful of their 12-game head-to-head losing streak against the Warriors, a contest they led until Jurrion Dickey’s incredible 67-yard catch-and-run in the final minutes, dropping the Irish to 0-4.
Though Dickey has since transferred to Menlo-Atherton, the memories of that play are fresh.
SHC has been dying for another shot at Valley Christian since that game. That the Warriors chose to schedule the Irish for homecoming is just the icing on the cake.
“We’ve been fired up about it all week,” SHC head coach Antoine Evans said. “The last time we went down there for their homecoming game, it was 61-0. The guys remember that.”
Homecoming is a big deal at Valley Christian, arguably bigger than at any of the other WCAL schools. Parking fills up early, to the point where fans have to park off-campus, and the game is typically a formality. The Warriors haven’t lost on Homecoming Night since 2012, and all but two of the wins since then have been by shutout, including that 61-0 pasting of the Irish in 2019.
This year’s outcome is much less of a foregone conclusion. The Warriors have more sophomores (nine) on their roster than seniors (six). Only four of those seniors see the field. It’s a talented sophomore class, headlined by 335-pound lineman Champ Taulealea, running back/cornerback Marcel Leggett Jr. and defensive end Edgar Birelas, but QB Jonathan Craft, another member of the Class of 2025, suffered a broken ankle against Hollister. The Warriors completed just two more passes that night after Craft left, and connected on two for the entire game in last week’s loss to Riordan.
Offensive struggles have been a constant for Sacred Heart Cathedral as well. In last week’s loss to Mitty, the Irish didn’t score an offensive touchdown until the final two minutes.
“We’re trying to up the tempo and make things more balanced,” Evans said. “We struggled to pass the ball until the end of the game last week.”
The Irish last beat Valley Christian in 2008, the year they returned to the WCAL for football after nearly two decades of playing an independent schedule.
St. Francis Lancers (1-3, 0-1 WCAL) @ St. Ignatius Wildcats (1-3, 0-1), Fri. Sept. 30, 7 p.m.
Both the Lancers and Wildcats, who field largely inexperienced rosters, have lost three straight games to top opponents since winning their openers.
The similarities largely end there. St. Francis has a sophomore-heavy group and likes to run the ball, while St. Ignatius spreads it out behind quarterback Mac McAndrews. The Lancers have three running backs averaging over four yards per carry in Kamau Julien and brothers Keala and Kingston Keanaaina, but the entire team has rushed for just two touchdowns and has yet to rip off a gain of more than 23 yards on the ground. That’s a stark contrast to last year, where Viliami “Juju” Teu ran for 27 TDs and had a pickup of at least 40 yards in six of 11 games.
Starting off on the right foot will be paramount for the Wildcats. Since a 27-point first quarter against Palo Alto, St. Ignatius has done nothing on offense in first halves. The 41 points scored in the first two quarters against the Vikings are the only points SI has scored in the first half all year.
Lowell Cardinals (0-3) @ Mission Bears (0-3), Fri. Sept. 30, 3 p.m. at Kezar Stadium
At the end of the season, it’s quite possible that Friday afternoon’s tilt between Lowell and Mission will be the difference between a playoff appearance and handing in gear come mid-November. Both the Cardinals and Bears are inexperienced sides, but Lowell stuck with Dougherty Valley for a half to close out non-league play, a sign for optimism. An injury to quarterback Adrian Chavarria in the season opener has hampered Mission’s offense, but the Bears’ biggest hurdle might be a mental one. In their first and third games, players checked out mentally in the second half. Against Novato, focus never wavered and the Bears competed the whole way in a 32-14 defeat.
Washington Eagles (3-1) @ Galileo Lions (0-4), Fri. Sept. 30, 3 p.m.
Galileo will return to the field on Friday after last week's controversial forfeit to Richmond. The Lions have been outscored 130-8 across the three times they’ve been on the field this season, and the pass defense has been one of the biggest issues across those losses. Washington quarterback James Mertz is questionable after leaving last week’s win over Oakland with an injury, but whether it’s Mertz or backup Mason Fong taking shotgun snaps, the Eagles will be unafraid to throw the ball. A healthy Dhiraj Gurung provided a boost for Washington last week; he ran for two touchdowns and snagged an interception.
Mitty Monarchs (4-0, 1-0 WCAL) @ Serra Padres (4-0, 1-0), Fri. Sept. 30, 7 p.m.
The two remaining unbeaten teams in the WCAL will meet on Friday night in Serra’s lone annual home night game. The Padres have played a significantly stronger schedule thus far, but Mitty turned heads last week with a 32-21 win at Sacred Heart Cathedral, fueled by Danny Scudero’s huge third quarter. While Serra’s defense has a strong linebacker core, Scudero and quarterback Wills Towers could pose a challenge for the Padre secondary.
Other Noteworthy Bay Area Games
McClymonds (3-0) visits Pittsburg (3-1) in the East Bay’s top matchup of the week. Much of the Peninsula Athletic League, which covers most of the schools in San Mateo County, opens league play this week, headlined by Menlo-Atherton (2-2) visiting Half Moon Bay (4-0) in the Bay Division.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]