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As participation dwindles, high school football programs aim to survive in SF

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Despite being one of the bigger schools in AAA, Lowell is fielding a football team that carries slightly more than the minimum players on its roster. (Courtesy Lowell Athletics)
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If participation at the high school level is indicative, the cries of doom and gloom that football is losing its place in America have some truth to it.

Recently, there has been a tenuous sense of stability among programs in San Francisco. Since Marshall dropped its team following the 2013 season, all seven schools have maintained their programs.

“We have four large schools in the AAA, and the other three schools are much smaller,” said commissioner Don Collins. “If you figure a good-sized team is 50 players at a school that has 2,000 students, you’d need an incredibly high participation rate at a school with 600-700 kids.”

Despite those challenges, Balboa, Burton and Mission have kept the programs together, and Mission has been one of the top sides in the city in the last few years.

Balboa’s currently dealing with little margin for error. The Buccaneers listed just 20 players on their roster for their league opener (the minimum is 18). Burton has dealt with similar issues, and due to a one-week blip in numbers, forfeited its league opener to Galileo. The Pumas also couldn’t assemble a frosh-soph team in time for league play.

For rosters that aren’t particularly big to begin with, it’s especially difficult to handle the adversity that will affect a typical high school football team — mainly injuries and problems with academic eligibility. The loss of one player has a much greater effect on a smaller roster.

As for the larger schools, Washington and Lowell — which both have more than 2,000 students enrolled — have encountered recent issues. Washington had to forfeit its final two games last year, and Lowell wasn’t able to piece together a frosh-soph roster until league play.

“It seems to be happening at the frosh-soph level first,” said Collins. If those problems persist for Lowell, the fate of the Cardinals’ program may be in jeopardy.

“Numbers are down with us, but they were down in other places too,” explained Collins. Mission San Jose, a Fremont school with over 2,000 students, dropped its program after 2015. MSJ had produced 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer and Justin Medlock, who graduated in 2002 and kicked at UCLA before playing in the NFL and CFL.

Over this past summer, the same issues surfaced for Novato, a school that had won league and regional titles in recent years. Low summer turnout put Novato on the brink of canceling its season before a last-minute swell of interest.

Novato’s resurgence has come in a well-publicized movement, whereas Washington resurrected its program with greater internal support.

“We’ve supported schools in their attempt to sustain teams,” said Collins.

It would be an overstatement to say that many of these programs are on life support. But a decent number have been close.

Turkey Day Game

In the aftermath of the canceled and postponed games caused by the North Bay fires, the status of the AAA Championship, the Turkey Day Game, remains uncertain.

In the coming week, the league will decide what to do about the postponed games from the week of October 12-14.

While the California Interscholastic Federation allows for teams to play two games in an eight-day stretch, which has allowed teams in other leagues to make up games, the AAA policy is to take five days between games.

In order to fit those postponed games before the postseason, the league would need to waive its policy to fit those games and maintain the playoff schedule.

The Turkey Day Game has been a San Francisco tradition since the 1920s. Not only does it decide the city champion, the winner advances to the Northern California playoffs. In the last two years, that team has been selected for a play-in game, played the week after Thanksgiving. To change the day of the championship game would not only break with tradition, it would affect the entire state playoff system.

There’s also the matter of securing sites. While the AAA is one of the primary tenants at Kezar Stadium, the field is often booked, making scheduling conflicts a factor.

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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