Two clear powers have stood above the rest in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) since 2018.
While the likes of Galileo, Lowell and Mission have offered challenges at various points, the league has unquestionably belonged to the Balboa Buccaneers and the Lincoln Mustangs.
As luck would have it, Washington, the latest to step up with hopes of challenging the two titans, faces both in consecutive weeks.
The Eagles have returned to relevance this year, winning six of their first seven games after winning just three total games, including one by forfeit, from 2018 through 2021. Across the 2018 and 2019 seasons, their lone win was a forfeit over Madison Park Academy, a small Oakland school that forfeited its final four games of the 2018 season and hasn’t fielded a football team since. In the 16 games Washington actually played between 2018 and 2019, the Eagles mustered just 60 points and were shut out 12 times.
Signs of life finally appeared in 2021. After experiencing the same early-season struggles that every AAA team faced, a byproduct of the San Francisco Unified School District declining to play in the shortened Covid season, Washington picked up wins over Galileo and Burton, then lost to Lowell by a single point. The Eagles were flattened by Balboa and Lincoln to end the season.
With Balboa and Lincoln on the schedule in back-to-back weeks once again, the outlook at Washington has changed dramatically. With 22 seniors on the roster, the Eagles have won their first three league games, all but clinching their first playoff trip since 2017 (the top four in the AAA advance to the postseason). Now it becomes a matter of how high Washington can go. The Eagles last won a playoff game in 2011, and last won the Turkey Day Game, San Francisco’s championship, in 2010. 2011 also marked the last time Washington won the AAA’s regular season title, something that’s possible if the Eagles can upend the Buccaneers and Mustangs.
“This is our opportunity for validation,” Washington head coach Mike Ramos said. “We feel like we’re a good team, but to prove it, you’ve gotta run with the guys at the top.”
Beating Balboa (3-4, 2-1 AAA) will be anything but an easy task. The Buccaneers have gotten on track since a 21-7 loss to Lincoln, dispatching winless Galileo and Burton by a combined 95-12 margin. With quarterback Edwin Maiava recovered from a shoulder injury and running back Donntae Chung Masina eligible after sitting out a transfer period, the Bucs don’t look like the same unit that amassed just 39 points in its first five games.
Washington (6-1, 3-0) undoubtedly has the firepower to win a shootout, as was evidenced in last week’s win over Lowell. Dhiraj Gurung, who was born in Nepal, scored three touchdowns and snagged three interceptions in a 52-34 thriller. In that game, the Eagles forced six turnovers but also let Lowell find the end zone five times as they struggled to stop the Cardinals’ double wing offense.
Under head coach Fred Velasquez, one of Balboa’s biggest strengths has been versatility. The Buccaneers can throw all sorts of different looks at opponents, with run-heavy jumbo backfields and modern spread packages in their arsenal.
“We’ve faced a lot of different styles of teams, so hopefully we’ll be prepared,” Ramos said. “We’ve faced spread, wing-T, double wing and everything in between.”
The Eagles will certainly be at a size disadvantage on the line. Aside from 310-pound standout Frank Alanis, Washington doesn’t have the same sort of bodies that Balboa does.
“They certainly have us on size,” Ramos admitted. “We’re hoping to get off the ball quickly, make them run and tire them out.”
With Washington’s playoff berth already all but locked in, the biggest tangible impact of Friday’s game, which kicks off at 3 p.m., will be in determining seeding. But it’ll also tell if the Eagles’ title aspirations are more than just a lofty aspiration.
Bellarmine Bells (3-4, 2-2 West Catholic Athletic League) @ Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish (4-3, 2-2), Fri., Oct. 21, 7 p.m. at Kezar Stadium
Both the Fightin’ Irish and the Bells have showcased tremendous talent throughout the season, but offensive consistency has been an issue for both. Sacred Heart Cathedral has scored 35 points or more twice, but has also been held under 14 three times. Amazingly, the Fightin’ Irish are 2-1 in games where they’ve been held under 14, including last week’s Bruce-Mahoney win over St. Ignatius. Meanwhile, Bellarmine’s offensive ability has largely hinged on the status of running back Ben Pfaff, who hasn’t played since suffering an ankle injury in the first quarter of a win at Riordan. In four games with Pfaff, the Bells have averaged 28.5 points per game. In the three without him, including the win over Riordan, they’ve averaged just nine. Pfaff’s status for Friday’s game is unknown.
The Fightin’ Irish beat the Bells last year in San Jose, 20-13, but they’ve never beaten Bellarmine at home. Friday will mark both homecoming and Senior Night for Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Lowell Cardinals (1-4, 1-1 AAA) @ Lincoln Mustangs (4-3, 3-0), Sat., Oct. 22, 2 p.m.
Records and recent history would suggest that Lincoln is a heavy favorite in this battle of schools separated by just two miles, but Lowell is well-equipped for a physical affair. Despite winning just one of their first five games, the Cardinals have shown that they can play bully ball, overpowering teams in the double wing offense with bruising running back Gavin Barry-Smith persevering through contact.
The Mustangs haven’t lost to Lowell since 2011, and in 2018, Lowell was forced to forfeit to Lincoln, with administration citing safety concerns as the game was perceived as a colossal mismatch. Since that 2018 season, in which they won just one game, the Cardinals have made two playoff appearances.
St. Ignatius Wildcats (2-5, 1-3 WCAL) @ Mitty Monarchs (6-1, 3-1), Fri., Oct. 21, 7 p.m. at Foothill College
St. Ignatius currently sits tied for sixth in the WCAL, and the league’s top six teams will reach the Central Coast Section (CCS) playoffs. Should the Wildcats upset Mitty, they’d take a massive step toward securing a postseason berth.
SI has taken massive strides on defense in the past two weeks, shutting Valley Christian out and holding Sacred Heart Cathedral to just 10 points, but performing in all three facets of the game at the same time has been a constant problem for the Wildcats. While their defense dazzled last week, they were held to just 139 yards of total offense and struggled on special teams, with a shanked punt setting up SHC’s lone touchdown.
The Wildcats did an admirable job covering RL Miller last week, and the defense will have another major challenge this Friday as they line up against Sacramento State commit Danny Scudero, who’s been at the heart of Mitty’s quick-strike offense. Gus Parker and company will need to find a way to keep Scudero in front of them, which only Serra has managed to do so far in 2022. Who Scudero will be receiving passes from, though, is uncertain. Quarterback Wills Towers left last week’s win over Bellarmine injured, and if he’s unable to return in time, backup Ty Yoshida will have the keys to the offense.
St. Francis Lancers (4-3, 3-1 WCAL) @ Riordan Crusaders (3-4, 1-3), Sat., Oct. 22, 2 p.m.
Officially, Riordan last beat St. Francis in 2000. Depending on who you ask, the Crusaders’ last win over the Lancers might have come in 2008. Either way, St. Francis has had the upper hand for a while.
The discrepancy comes from the bizarre rules that the WCAL used to handle ties before an overtime system was standardized across the CCS. The Crusaders and Lancers tied in both 2007 and 2008, and the WCAL standings show both games as such, but the teams played an overtime tiebreaker for the sole purpose of breaking a hypothetical tie for playoff seeding in the highly unlikely event that the two teams ended up even on all other measures. Considering the muted reactions that teams typically displayed during these overtime periods, for all intents and purposes, both of those games were viewed as ties by all in attendance.
Riordan dropped a third straight game last week to Serra, but the Crusaders forced the Padres to revamp their game plan after ending Serra’s first three drives with interceptions. The Riordan secondary will be tested again this week by a St. Francis offense led by quarterback Matt Dougherty Jr., who’s thrown for 11 touchdowns this season.
Burton Pumas (0-3, 0-2 AAA) @ Mission Bears (0-5, 0-2), Fri., Oct. 21, 3 p.m. at Kezar Stadium
With Sacred Heart Cathedral at home on Friday night, fans can catch a rare varsity doubleheader at Kezar Stadium. The Pumas and Bears will kick off at 3 p.m., with the Bellarmine-SHC freshman game relegated to Thursday. While Mission has yet to win a game this year, the Bears can rip off big plays with wide receiver Taevon Mitchell and running back Zaden Cato. Burton has yet to score on offense this season, though Junshao Liu did get the Pumas on the board last week with a pick-six.
Valley Christian Warriors (1-6, 0-4 WCAL) @ Serra Padres (7-0, 4-0), Sat., Oct. 22, 1:30 p.m.
Saturday’s game marks Serra’s annual Polynesian Day celebration, with halftime dance performances and a legendary barbecue that celebrates the ties between the local Pacific Islander community and the Padre football program while simultaneously sparking interest in potential future Serra players.
The Padres have won five straight meetings over Valley Christian, including a pair of shutouts in the 2019 season.
Other Noteworthy Bay Area Games
The Blossom Valley Athletic League’s Mount Hamilton Division may be decided on Thursday when Live Oak (6-1, 2-0 BVAL Mount Hamilton) visits Lincoln-San Jose (7-0, 2-0). The host Lions are led by star quarterback Tayden Phillips, who also starts at cornerback.
Santa Clara County’s other main league, the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League, will once again see its De Anza Division crown come down to Friday’s Wilcox-Los Gatos game. Wilcox (7-0, 3-0 SCVAL De Anza) runs a lightning-quick veer offense, while Los Gatos (5-2, 3-0) has allowed just 8.3 points per game, including 20 yielded by the second-stringers at the end of a blowout win over Palo Alto.
Despite being so similar in name and being separated by just a mile-and-a-half, Friday will be the first meeting since Menlo-Atherton (4-3, 2-1 Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division) and Menlo (4-3, 1-1) since 2018. The Bears, who will host Friday’s clash at 7 p.m., beat the Knights 42-3 in that meeting under then-head coach Adhir Ravipati.
Typically one of San Mateo County’s top programs, Terra Nova has dropped down to the Ocean Division, the second tier of the PAL. Terra Nova (6-1, 3-0 PAL Ocean) currently shares first place with San Mateo (5-2, 3-0) and will host the Bearcats on Friday night.
Fresh off a massive upset win over Salinas, Aptos (6-1, 3-0 Pacific Coast Athletic League Gabilan Division) will face Palma (6-1, 3-0) at Rabobank Stadium, the Chieftains’ home field. The winner will take first place in the top division of the league that covers the southern half of the CCS.
In Contra Costa County, Clayton Valley (4-3, 2-0 East Bay Athletic League Mountain Division) hosts California-San Ramon (5-2, 1-1). The Ugly Eagles have won three straight, and their three defeats were by a combined 13 points. De La Salle (4-3, 1-0) hosts Monte Vista (2-5, 1-1). Moreau Catholic transfer Julian McMahan and sophomore Kellan Ford, who transferred from crosstown rival San Ramon Valley, helped the Mustangs snap a four-game losing streak last week against Amador Valley. Liberty (4-3, 1-1 Bay Valley Athletic League) visits Antioch (3-4, 2-0) in the easternmost reaches of the North Coast Section (NCS).
Fans looking for even more high school football on Saturday night can head to Hillsdale for a 6 p.m. kickoff as the Fighting Knights host Capuchino (4-3, 2-1). All but one of the Mustangs’ games have been decided by less than two scores, while Hillsdale (3-4, 1-2) has played four games decided by six points or fewer.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]