Balboa and Lincoln have been the teams to beat in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) across the past two seasons. Neither the Buccaneers nor the Mustangs have lost to any other league opponent since 2018, and even though both squads have some talent to replace entering the 2022 campaign, they’re still expected to be the teams to beat among San Francisco’s public schools. (See our citywide football preview here.)
It would be an utter shock for either Balboa or Lincoln to miss the postseason, but the other two playoff spots are completely up for grabs. The Lowell Cardinals have their work cut out for them after graduating an excellent senior class, but hope to be able to turn to their depth to compensate for those losses. Mission has a stout defense but minimal depth, while Burton has extremely thin numbers but some of the biggest bodies in the entire league. Washington’s experienced quarterback and receiver core aims to continue upward trajectory after rising to fifth place in 2021, while Galileo is striving to recreate the winning culture that head coach Nick Naudain experienced in his days playing for the Lions.
2021: 9-4, 5-1 AAA (2nd), won Turkey Day Game and CIF Division Division 7-A Championship
Season opener: vs. Skyline, Sept. 3, 2 p.m.
Head coach: Fred Velasquez (9th season, 40-43-1)
Players to watch: WR/OLB Jerrold Anderson (So.), C/DT Santiago Alvarez (Sr.), QB/SS Edwin Maiava (Sr.), G/DT Nifae Shul-Cassidy (Jr.), WR/CB Nick Wong (Sr.)
After winning their first City championship since 1984, the Buccaneers are in an unfamiliar position with a target on their backs. Balboa suffered significant losses to graduation at the skill positions, but the Bucs return an extremely experienced group in the trenches, headed by Santiago Alvarez and Nifae Shul-Cassidy.
Swiss Army knife quarterback Ben Norori may have graduated, but Edwin Maiava took his share of snaps under center last year and will now get the bulk of those opportunities in a system that typically rotates different players around the backfield. Jerrold “Fat Fat” Anderson played both defensive end and tight end as a freshman, and may already be one of the best players in the league as only a sophomore.
The Buccaneers have tremendous size and strength, boasting what may be the largest offensive line of any school in San Francisco, public or private. However, discipline and endurance will be a challenge. Penalty flags piled up in their four losses in 2021, and early practices showed many of the linemen need to build up their stamina to be able to compete throughout all four quarters.
With another daunting nonleague schedule, headlined by a Sept. 9 trip to Central Valley power Oakdale, it’ll once again be trial by fire for Balboa in the early part of the season. Fred Velasquez employed that model last year, and while his team lost its first three games by an average of 37 points, it paid off in the long run.
2021: 0-7, 0-6 AAA (7th)
Season opener: @ Harker, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.
Head coach: Duane Breaux (8th season, 18-44)
Players to watch: G/LB Ruben Aviles (Jr.), T/DT Abraham Barcenas (Jr.), QB/CB Anthony Navarro (So.), C/DT Joseph Pan (Jr.), FB/G/DE Hector Sibrian (So.)
Low numbers have taken their toll on the Pumas, who had to cancel their first three nonleague games after small turnout at summer workouts. Burton will have enough players to field a team, with roughly two dozen kids signed up, but there’ll be almost no continuity from the 2021 season after none of the would-be seniors from last season’s squad turned out to play. Considering that the 2021 team went winless, that may not be an enormous loss. Instead, Duane Breaux, who also coaches basketball and track, all while serving as the school’s athletic director, will rely on a young team with just three seniors. Two of those three have never played a down of competitive high school football, while the third played on the frosh-soph team at Galileo.
What Burton does have is size, and lots of it. The Pumas’ linemen are some of the biggest in the entire city, led by 6-foot-5 Abraham Barcenas and 330-pounder Joseph Pan, both juniors. Accompanying them will be Ruben Aviles, who may not tip the scales quite as much as his counterparts but serves as the group’s leader. They’ll be blocking for a sophomore-heavy group of skill players, one that includes two different options at quarterback in Anthony Navarro and Jeremiah Smith. Navarro and Smith will typically line up in spread formations, but even with different looks, the Pumas tend to stay on the ground, as most teams in the AAA do.
Hector Sibrian may be the most compelling player to watch on Burton’s roster; he can play as a guard but can also fit in an H-back position as both a blocker and a ball carrier. If Burton’s bigs can develop the endurance to accompany their strength, the Pumas will be a dark horse in the AAA.
2021: 1-7, 1-5 AAA (6th)
Season opener: @ Terra Linda, Sept. 2, 7 p.m. at San Rafael HS
Head coach: Nick Naudain (2nd season, 1-7)
Players to watch: QB Nate Chynoweth (Jr.), C David Estrada (Sr.), LB Wilson Lu (Sr.), FB Brandon Su (Sr.), ATH Jack Weiksner (Jr.)
Nick Naudain, a 1998 Galileo graduate, is dedicated to establishing a culture that resembles the one from his playing days.
“We used to talk about Lion Pride,” Naudain said. “We need to bring that back.”
Constant coaching changes had brought the Lions down from the heights of their 2017 state championship, getting shut out seven times just two years later. Naudain, now in his third year and second season coaching at his alma mater, has been tasked with bringing the Lions program back up from the lowest of lows.
Consider this: The 32 kids across the varsity and JV teams that showed up for summer workouts this year are more than five times the number that came out before the 2021 season, and with school now in session and freshmen roaming the halls, Galileo has over 40 football players once again.
Building a winning program from scratch requires enormous commitment and attention to detail, but having someone with youthful energy like Naudain makes the task far easier. His 2022 squad will be an undersized group, but junior Jack Weiksner is one of the most versatile players in the entire City. He played tight end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and kicker over the course of the 2021 season.
Galileo’s “small but mighty” mentality will be embodied by Brandon Su, a 5-foot-2, 170-pound fullback who prefers to run through defenders rather than around them. Linebacker Wilson Lu attended summer practices and effectively served as a player-coach hybrid while battling injuries, and center David Estrada will anchor the offensive line. The Lions also have experience at quarterback, something most of their league rivals lack. Nate Chynoweth was an All-City Honorable Mention as a sophomore and will spearhead an attack that uses the pass to open up opportunities for the run, an inverted approach of the typical high school offense.
2021: 8-4, 6-0 AAA (1st), lost Turkey Day Game to Balboa
Season opener: vs. Jefferson, Aug. 26, 3 p.m.
Head coach: Phil Ferrigno (20th season, 139-82)
Players to watch: FB/MLB Diego Cristerna (Jr.), TE/MLB Hezekiah Davis (Sr.), WR/CB Michael Simmons (Sr.), G/DT Gabriel Tato (So.), HB Ricky Underwood (Sr.)
For the first time since 2018, the Mustangs won’t enter the season as reigning city champions, but they’ll be one of the frontrunners in the AAA. Lincoln has played in three straight Turkey Day Games, and though Balboa ended Lincoln’s run of championships last year, the Mustangs haven’t lost a regular season game to a league opponent since 2017. Since the beginning of the 2018 season, they’ve lost just five games altogether.
After graduating only 14 of 43 players, Phil Ferrigno’s squad will have no shortage of experience as they run their tried and true I-formation system. Lincoln typically has a durable halfback that gets the lion’s share of the carries, and Ricky Underwood is the man for the job. He ran for 102.2 yards per game during a breakout junior season, and his combination of speed and a low center of gravity makes him a hassle for opponents to bring down.
Middle linebacker Diego Cristerna was a key cog on a defense that allowed just a hair over 15 points per game, and he’ll likely be a major player on that unit in his junior season.
“We’re more together this year than we were last year,” Cristerna commented. “We’ve got all the guys back from last year and we’ve got all the brotherhood going on.”
The quarterback position remains up in the air with the season fast approaching, but if the Mustangs have their way and can control the clock like they usually do, they’ll rarely even reach double-digits in pass attempts.
2021: 6-5, 4-2 AAA (3rd), lost AAA semifinal to Balboa
Season opener: @ Monta Vista-Cupertino,Aug. 26, 7 p.m.
Head coach: Danny Chan (18th season, 74-98-1)
Players to watch: T/DT Ed Asiasi (Sr.), T/DT Selvin Gonzalez (Sr.), RB/LB Matthew Jimenez (Sr.), WR/CB Stevie Rivas (Sr.), G/DT Lester Zhao (Sr.)
The Cardinals may be short on experience after graduating a senior class that made a pair of playoff appearances, but they’ll be elevating a group of underclassmen that won the frosh/soph league championship last year. Though the roster will lack varsity reps, head coach Danny Chan also led the frosh/soph unit last year, so there’ll be no shortage of familiarity with Lowell’s system for the newcomers.
Chan and his staff have seen upwards of 40 varsity players at summer workouts, numbers they haven’t seen in over a decade. Expect the Cardinals to be more run-heavy in 2022; quarterback Reese Miller is entering his freshman year at Division III Knox College in Illinois, which should point to Lowell running more of the double wing system that’s been common under Chan.
As of now, the quarterback depth chart is undecided at Lowell, but whoever does end up winning the job will be looking to throw to Stevie Rivas, a speedster of a receiver despite standing at just 5-foot-5. If this unproven but ambitious group can power the Cardinals to a third consecutive playoff appearance, it’ll show that the culture is still strong at Lowell and could provide a rallying point for a school community that’s been splintered over changes to the admissions process in recent years.
2021: 4-7, 3-4 AAA (4th), lost AAA semifinal to Lincoln
Season opener: @ Oakland Tech, Aug. 26, 7 p.m.
Head coach: Terrill Vinson (1st season)
Players to watch: RB/WR/LB Malieke Delaney (Jr.), T/DT Tolaopa Fua (Sr.), WR/CB Saul Hernandez (Jr.), TE/DT Demetrius Jackson (Jr.) DE/LB Isaiah Pearson (Sr.)
When Tobias Whitley left Mission to take an assistant job at Bishop Dunne Catholic in Dallas, athletic director Arnold Zelaya handed the reins over to Terrill Vinson, who will try to maintain a sense of continuity after spending four years as an assistant defensive coordinator. Vinson is no stranger to what it takes to succeed in the AAA; he graduated from Balboa in 2006 after playing alongside quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who played at UCLA and Sac State and went on to have a successful professional career in the Canadian Football League.
San Francisco’s skyrocketing cost of living has even affected high school football teams, as the Bears were hampered by low turnout as many of their players worked summer jobs to support their families. Numbers have rebounded nicely now that school is in session, but Vinson and his staff will have to help players make up for the valuable instruction that they missed during the summer. Most of the returning experience can be found on the defense and along the lines, where Isaiah Pearson is set to balance time between the defensive end and linebacker positions while Tolaopa Fua will anchor the lines as both an offensive and defensive tackle. Expect Malieke Delaney to have the ball in his hands frequently, whether it’s as a rushing or a receiving option. Mission will be a run-heavy team, but when the Bears do throw, Saul Hernandez will make his impact at receiver after losing weight through wrestling to make the switch after playing his sophomore year as a lineman.
2021: 2-7, 2-4 AAA (5th)
Season opener: vs. Ygnacio Valley, Aug. 27, 2 p.m.
Head coach: Mike Ramos (3rd season, 2-16)
Players to watch: G/DT Frank Alanis (Sr.), RB/FS Dhiraj Gurung (Sr.), T/LB Rigo Hernandez (Sr.), WR/S Felix Mamrikov (Sr.), QB James Mertz (Sr.)
Entering his fourth year and third season leading the Eagles, Mike Ramos feels this is the year for his team to make a real push for a playoff spot. After spending the prior years building from the ground up, working to increase roster numbers and establish a strong culture, Ramos has not only a senior-heavy team at his disposal but one that’s got all the characteristics of a winning program, citing commitment from his upperclassmen leaders and exceptional support from parents and the community as a whole.
Washington expects to throw the ball more than any other team in the AAA, relying on the arm of quarterback James Mertz and wide receivers Felix Mamrikov and Ben Nguyen.
Progress has been a constant under Ramos. Washington’s two wins last year would be considered a meager sum for most teams, but it’s a titanic leap forward from a 2019 season that saw the Eagles lose by shutout in six of their nine games. Their Oct. 8 win over Galileo was their first on-field victory since Nov. 10, 2017, and their first win of any kind since a forfeit in 2018. The question at Washington now is where is the ceiling? Is it the Eagles’ first .500 record and playoff appearance since 2017, or is it something even higher, like returning to the Turkey Day Game for the first time since 2011?
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]