Following Saturday’s victory in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 7-A Championship, Lincoln Mustangs head coach Phil Ferrigno said he considers himself an underdog.
His team didn’t look like underdogs on Saturday.
Lincoln (10-3) dominated the Crenshaw Cougars on a rain-soaked Kezar Stadium field that at times looked like a Slip ‘N Slide, rolling to a 54-6 victory for the school’s third state championship. The 48-point margin was the fifth-largest in the history of California state championships.
“So blessed,” Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno said of how it felt to win the title. “I’m an underdog, so I always want to keep that edge. Everybody thinks they’re better than us, but we’re gonna play hard, play together as a team.”
While the 10-3 record and nine-game winning streak to end the season made the Mustangs look like a juggernaut, it wasn’t always such smooth sailing. Before going undefeated in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA), the Mustangs had suffered a three-game losing streak to start September, including an upset loss to El Camino on Sept. 9.
“The season was an ebb and flow,” Ferrigno said. “I kind of knew that we’d start being successful because of the way the players bonded together, especially before Turkey Day.”
When the Mustangs have been at their best, it’s come from an explosive rushing attack. Saturday was no different, as Ricky Underwood and Jamelle Newman each ran for over 150 yards.
The Mustangs didn’t pass the ball a single time Saturday, and although the Cougars knew what was coming, they allowed too many big plays to give themselves a chance to win. Underwood, who finished with 155 total yards, rushed for a 37-yard touchdown to open the scoring less than two minutes after the opening whistle. In the second quarter he rushed for two more long touchdowns, a 47-yarder and a 20-yarder to make the score 27-0 with 6:25 remaining.
Underwood was one of Lincoln’s stars for a second year in a row, but his season had its share of adversity. He broke his collarbone in the first half of a season-opening win against Jefferson and missed the next seven games. He was limited in the final two games of the regular season as the Mustangs secured their league title, and only played full games during Lincoln’s playoff run.
“I’m at a loss for words,” he said. “I don’t even know what to say; I’m just really happy.”
Newman, who finished with 168 total yards, found the endzone twice himself, both times in the third quarter. He finishes the season with 15 rushing touchdowns, and will be one of Ferrigno’s top returners in the fall.
A blocked punt by Jaylen Lopez led to a 2-yard rushing touchdown, and he broke free for a 58-yard touchdown less than two minutes later. In the first quarter, his 55-yard rush set up fullback Diego Cristerna for a 6-yard touchdown to make the score 14-0. Quarterback Michael Simmons scored two touchdowns in the second half on rushes of 49 and 5 yards.
Lincoln dominated on the defensive side of the ball as well. The Mustangs allowed 208 yards of total offense and held Crenshaw’s star running back, Andrew Wynn, to 55 yards on 11 carries. The Mustangs forced four turnovers, a fumble in the first quarter and three interceptions. Xavier Solares first picked off Crenshaw quarterback Donce Lewis in the second quarter and Myles Hamlin picked off Wynn for the second time a few minutes later.
“We are a fast, strong, physical team,” Ferrigno said. “Our program is built on the three Ds (Dedication, Discipline and Desire). […] They just go at it.”
Going into halftime, the Mustangs led 27-0. By the start of the fourth quarter, they had pushed up the score to 47-0. The fourth quarter operated with a running clock.
Crenshaw (7-8) had only 21 players in uniform. The Cougars scored their only points with 7:21 remaining in the game when Lewis threw a 36-yard touchdown to Makyi Douglas, who secured a tipped ball with one hand. It made the score 54-6, and the ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed.
Losing a championship game by such a lopsided margin in the state’s lowest division would have been considered a low point for the Cougars not long ago. Crenshaw (7-8) played in the Open Division in 2009 against powerhouse De La Salle, but the school’s enrollment has fallen from well over 2,000 to a hair under 500. There was concern that the team wouldn’t have enough healthy players to finish the season, and the team sat 2-7 after a blowout loss to rival Dorsey.
Instead of crumple, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) program went on a five-game winning streak and earned the right to conclude its season with a trip across the state to play at a venue that once housed NFL greats.
“It’s a great honor,” Crenshaw head coach Robert Garrett said of playing at Kezar.
Saturday marked the final game for 13 Lincoln seniors, a group headlined by Underwood and Turkey Day hero Xavier Solares. The linebacker core will suffer some serious losses with the graduation of Solares, Hezekiah Davis, Vincent Huang and Melvin Horne, and the Mustangs will also have to replace two-way lineman Deion Solis.
Those departures won’t change Lincoln’s mentality, though. The “three Ds” are emblazoned on the back of every Mustang shirt and hat. It’s the same approach that the undefeated 2018 team and 12-1 2019 teams used, and it was present throughout the past two seasons as the Lincoln program navigated the Covid pandemic, which brought even more obstacles to San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) teams than it did to others around the state. The district was one of the most restrictive in allowing athletes to play, and the San Francisco Section was the only one of the 10 member sections of the CIF to not play an abbreviated spring 2021 season after the fall 2020 campaign was postponed.
The district’s slow response left its football teams behind the 8-ball in 2021, and the deficit in game experience still showed itself at times in the early stages of 2022, but that didn’t stop Ferrigno’s group from returning to the top.
“We aren’t afraid to play anyone,” he said.
Since the CIF expanded its state championships in 2015 to ensure that every section champ advances to a regional bowl game at minimum, the AAA champion has gone on to win five state bowls. Galileo and Balboa have each won once, while Lincoln has claimed three titles, a testament to the Mustangs’ ability to build a strong program.
Like other public schools, Lincoln has to watch private schools poach top players, and unlike their suburban counterparts, the Mustangs can’t look at nearby middle schools to gauge incoming players because of SFUSD’s open enrollment policies. Unless incoming students have older siblings that have come through the program, freshmen that arrive at Lincoln typically do so without any previous understanding of the program’s tradition.
And yet, even with those challenges, Lincoln has won its third state championship. Most programs can only dream of winning one. The Mustangs have done it three times, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be competing for another next year.
Gabe Fisher can be reached at [email protected]