When the California Interscholastic Federation first announced its decision to increase the number of state championship games from five to 13, it was met with bewilderment. The results, however, couldn’t have been any better.
California’s population is nearly 50 percent larger than Texas, which has 12 state champions, so 13 is still relatively a small number. The modified system, which was implemented in 2015, attempted to fix the problem of the many deserving section champions that wouldn’t even advance to a regional game because of the bottleneck that was created by the lack of divisions.
Up until this year, San Francisco’s champions hadn’t factored into the discussion, losing in lower-division play-in games. This year, the schedule was altered by the North Bay fires, which sent the San Francisco Champion, Galileo, into the Division 6-A Northern California Regional game, rather than one of the play-in games.
As it turns out, had Galileo needed to go through a play-in game, it would have likely been an easy test for the Lions. They beat a Rio Vista team that would been seeded ahead of any play-in opponent for the 6-A title, 20-14.
Galileo’s rise came from rather humble beginnings. The Lions were hardly discussed as a title contender within the AAA. Yes, everyone knew that running back Yarvell Smith would be one of the most electric players in the league, but few expected the team to rise to such heights.
“I was hoping for a home playoff game, and we got that,” said head coach Mark Huynh. Galileo earned that home game by finishing second in the league, and the Lions ousted third-place Lincoln, 22-17.
In the AAA Championship, played at Kezar Stadium, Galileo exacted revenge on regular-season champion Mission with a 50-28 victory. Mission won the first meeting between the teams, but Galileo ensured there would be no repeat, opening up a 38-0 halftime lead, fueled by a pair of defensive touchdowns.
In last Saturday’s regional victory over Rio Vista, the defense was at it again, forcing a pair of turnovers. Jackie Guo had a pick-six for the second consecutive week and a fumble at the 8-yard line set up Smith’s go-ahead touchdown run.
Smith, who broke 1,300 yards on Saturday and scored his 20th touchdown of his sophomore season on the go-ahead score, has been even better than advertised.
“It’s amazing how he can hit an open hole,” said Huynh. “The most amazing thing about his abilities is that he seems to get stronger in the fourth quarter. He runs harder and is tougher to bring down.”
Smith, who is 5-foot-10, towers over his backfield mate, quarterback Adrian Poot, by about seven inches.
“I have no idea how he sees over the line and connects with the receivers,” said Huynh. Poot has thrown for over 1,200 yards on the season.
If Smith, Poot and the rest of the Lions are going to bring home a title, they’re going to do it by truly conquering the entire state. Come Friday, the team will pile into a pair of charter buses and take a 10-hour trip to Calexico.
Saturday’s championship matchup couldn’t present a greater contrast. Galileo has more than 2,000 students, while Vincent Memorial has just 300. Galileo’s home field is sandwiched between Chinatown and Ghirardelli Square. Vincent Memorial doesn’t have an on-campus stadium.
Regardless of how it shakes out, Saturday night’s affair in the southernmost reaches of Imperial County should be one of the most fascinating matchups for a state championship in California history.
Both teams have coaches with Asian heritage, with Huynh and Vincent Memorial’s David Wong. It is believed that it will be the first state championship game in any of the lower 48 states to be contested between two teams with Asian-American head coaches.
“I first saw that and thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” said Huynh. “I have Danny Chan here at Lowell, and we’re good friends, but the stage that David Wong and I will be coaching on is much bigger. I’m happy for that – one Asian coach will be a state champion. Asians and football is not something a lot of people talk about. It’s just one other thing to make this game special.”
Galileo won’t be the only local team playing for a state title this weekend. There’ll be heavy Peninsula and Bay Area influences in multiple championship games. Serra, St. Francis, Half Moon Bay and Milpitas will represent the CCS in title games. McClymonds will carry the torch for Oakland, and the East Bay will have representatives in Pittsburg and De La Salle. Serra, St. Francis, Pittsburg and De La Salle will play in games at Sacramento State that will be televised on NBC Sports Bay Area, while Half Moon Bay, McClymonds and Milpitas will be traveling to Southern California.
Prep Focus writer Ethan Kassel covers high school sports throughout the Bay Area. If you have a story tip, game to watch or player to track, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.