One of the great things about playing in the Academic Athletic Association (AAA) is the simplicity of the requirements to make the playoffs.
While teams in the Central Coast Section (CCS) and North Coast Section (NCS) require a strong body of work throughout the season to reach their respective playoffs, the only thing a San Francisco public school needs to do to play postseason football is finish in the top four of the AAA.
This means that non-league wins and losses don’t matter for teams like Washington. While the Eagles were certainly disappointed after a 23-22 home loss to Irvington, the lessons they’ll be able to take from Saturday’s matchup with the Vikings will matter much more than the outcome.
“If we have this now, we can get into league play and beat teams under pressure,” quarterback James Mertz said.
Mertz led the Eagles offense onto the field with 1:55 left and no timeouts, starting at their own 14. Washington (1-1) had no hopes for a field goal with kicker Zach Gillern out injured, meaning they would need to drive the full 86 yards to win the game.
Despite being plagued by inaccuracy earlier in the game, misfiring on 11 of his first 16 attempts, Mertz nearly got his team to the promised land. After an incompletion on first down, he hit Ayan Razzak for a 34-yard gain and connected with Felix Mamrikov for a gain of 22, bringing the Eagles all the way to the Irvington 30. Mertz then scrambled for three yards on first down before heading out of bounds to stop the clock with 1:09 left, but overthrew Benjamin Nguyen on second down. Ricky Lin and Felipe Romero teamed up for a sack on third down, negating the prior three-yard gain, and Mertz’s pass on fourth down was tipped by Vikings defensive back Malachi Vega. Wide receiver Jefferson Bonilla nearly caught the tipped ball, but it fell incomplete, allowing Irvington (1-1) to escape.
Though the Vikings were the ones posing with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, the forward steps Washington demonstrated on Saturday were unmistakable. The Eagles played without 310-pound lineman Frank Alanis, out with an arm injury, and were missing their top two running backs, Tommy Commer (shoulder) and Dhiraj Gurung (leg). That left them almost completely unable to run the ball, and they still nearly toughed out a win.
“It was tough because they were playing a lot of cover 4 and cover 2 when we were airing it out,” Mertz said when asked about playing without his top two rushers.
To be entirely fair, 14 of the Eagles’ 22 points came from special teams. Irvington’s Ethan Nguyen ran the game’s opening kickoff back for an 80-yard touchdown, only for Mason Fong to go 91 yards for the hosts on the very next play, despite initially bobbling the Alexis Preciado kick.
“I’ve never seen a game that started like that,” Washington head coach Mike Ramos commented. “That’s a thing that you want to tell your team, though. Things like that are gonna happen, but to be able to bounce back just exemplifies the entire day for us.”
The extra point was blocked, and the visitors took a 9-6 lead with 3:19 left in the first quarter when Mertz was forced to fall on a bad snap in the end zone for a safety, but Washington emerged from the first quarter with a five-point lead after Razzak returned a blocked field goal for an 87-yard score.
Facing fourth-and-12 at the Washington 20, Irvington coach Matt Kaufman called timeout with nine seconds remaining in the quarter to give Preciado a chance to kick with the wind at his back. Instead of lining up seven yards behind the ball, as is typical in a kicking formation, Irvington’s holder lined up just four yards behind the line of scrimmage, allowing Washington’s rushers to easily block the kick. The ball popped up in the air, Razzak secured it at the 13 and ran nearly untouched along the near sideline to put the hosts back in front. The extra point after Fong’s return touchdown was blocked, so the Eagles went for two and got it as Mertz connected with Nguyen.
Washington had a chance to extend the lead in the second quarter after forcing a red zone turnover, with a fumble forced by Jonathan Saelaw and recovered by Sam Dunn, but a blindside block penalty wiped out the last 33 yards of what would have been an 85-yard touchdown pass from Mertz to Razzak. Two plays later, Mertz was intercepted by Jovin Basra.
Basra also excelled at the receiver position for the Vikings, with six receptions for 84 yards. He was the primary target for Aryaan Shah, who completed 13 of 24 passes for 161 yards but arguably made a bigger impact on the ground, with 65 rushing yards on 14 carries. Shah led a go-ahead touchdown drive early in the third quarter after Washington went three-and-out on the opening possession of the half, hitting Naren Kesevalu for an 11-yard completion on fourth-and-8 from the 26 and pitching to Jacob Santos on an option play for a 4-yard score. A Nguyen interception immediately sent the Viking offense back onto the field at the Washington 49, and Santos gained 18 on a third-and-10 to set up Shah for a 3-yard touchdown run on third down.
Washington fired back to start the fourth quarter as Mertz hit Razzak for a 38-yard pickup on third-and-9 and before scoring on an 8-yard run with 10:32 remaining. Irvington twice turned the ball over on downs in Washington territory during the fourth quarter. The first of those, coming on a dropped Shah pass, set the Eagles up at their own 25 with 5:45 left, but a delay of game penalty left the hosts with fourth-and-9. Mertz’s pass to Mamrikov was a yard short of the line to gain, giving the ball back to the Vikings with 3:07 remaining.
A 19-yard Shah pickup on the first play of the ensuing drive appeared to signal the end of the Eagles’ chances, but the Vikings came up short on a fourth-and-9 after their own delay of game penalty. That gave Mertz one last chance, with no timeouts at his disposal after Ramos needed to use two to stop the clock during the prior Irvington possession.
Elyjah Qasevakatini had three tackles for loss to lead the Washington defense. Razzak finished with three catches for 125 yards, even with the last 33 of his longest catch of the day getting wiped out with a flag. Mamrikov caught four passes for 49 yards.
“I firmly believe that we have the best quarterback in the city,” Ramos said of Mertz. “For him to put the two picks and the overthrows out of his head, it just goes for every halftime speech that every coach gives, the ‘play like it’s 0-0, all that stuff.’ He was able to get his head back into the game. That’s good leadership.”
Santos ran 20 times for 68 yards for the Vikings, while backfield partner Nick Forbes picked up 40 yards on seven carries. The one-point win was a reversal of the prior week for Irvington, having lost 15-14 to Napa after squandering a two-score halftime lead to open the season.
The Eagles will play a third straight Saturday afternoon at home next week with a 2 p.m. kickoff against Denair (1-1). The Coyotes, who reside in Stanislaus County, suffered a season-opening loss to Modesto Christian but beat Riverbank in their second game, 45-0.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]