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Mission football regroups after difficult start to season

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Greg Hill, left, holds practice at Mission High School on Thursday. (Mira Laing/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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In the wild, hikers and campers are warned not to wake a sleeping bear. In San Francisco, football teams should be warned not to sleep on the Bears.

Although Mission is off to a 1-3 start and had to replace one of the most accomplished players in AAA history, the Bears are still expected to compete for the championship once again. Mission has won the last three regular-season titles and claimed the championship in 2014 and 2015.

The team opened the season by facing tougher competition than the rest of the league. During those games, the Bears have showcased their versatility and tested a series of different weapons in the process.

“We have a few players that can play a few different positions for us, so that was good to see,” said second-year head coach Greg Hill.

The offense will be a handful for any coach to deal with as there’s no way to predict what the Bears will do in the backfield. Mission uses a committee of running backs and, depending on formation, three different players at quarterback. Willie Chase, McKinley Oliver and David Rodas have all gotten time under center this season.

“We installed a lot of plays to see what would run well as well as to challenge the players,” said Hill. “The guys know a lot of different systems and packages.”

While Mission may simplify the playbook in another quest for the City championship, the Bears have learned their strengths and weaknesses through that experimentation.

That process was especially important for the team that is tasked with replacing Niamey Harris, the reigning two-time MVP.

“Last year, you could just give the ball to Niamey Harris. This year, it’s a more balanced team,” said Hill. “We have to rely on running backs, quarterbacks, o-line. Everyone is needed.”

While Harris is now at CCSF, five of his teammates from last year’s state championship basketball team are still on the roster: Chase, Jamir Dreher, Robert Lee and brothers U’Jah and I’Jah Pratt.

Mission opened up its season with a 30-14 win at Jefferson and lost close games to Oakland Tech and San Mateo. In the final game of the nonleague slate, the Bears fell behind early against American Canyon and closed the gap late but ultimately lost.

“Our nonleague schedule was a bit challenging, but that was by design,” said Hill.

In all four games, Mission has focused on controlling possession rather than obliterating teams via big plays.

“We don’t have as much of the big play ability as we had last year, so it’s more of a process,” said Hill. “We have to rely on time of possession a lot, but we don’t have as many of the big plays.”

If there is one player that the Bears can look to for that explosiveness, it would be Jelani Al-Malik, who excels a stars a track. Al-Malik was invited to the state track championships as a sophomore, where he placed 27th in the 100-meter dash.

As talented as the Bears may be, another run at a league title won’t be easy. Lincoln returns lots of talent from a team that finished second in the regular season and beat the Bears in the Turkey Bowl to win the championship. Galileo features tons of strength at running back and Lowell is a consistent offensive team.

Mission’s first league test will come today at Washington, where the Bears will battle an Eagles team that is much improved after a few rough seasons. Washington is off to a 2-1 start, with wins over Castlemont and a California School for the Deaf team that won 11 games last year and was featured on ESPN.

Perhaps the toughest part of opening league play is the lack of common opponents between most of the teams in the league. San Francisco schools play a wide range of teams in nonleague play, meaning there isn’t a standard on which to base expectations.

Even with those obstacles, Hill said he and his staff are up to the task. “Film helps, and confidence in our preparation helps,” he said. “All of our preparation took place during the summertime and nonleague play; now the week just flies by and it’s gametime.”

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 ethankassel@gmail.com.

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