If the Mission Bears are going to continue their presence at the top of the Academic Athletic Association, it’s going to be with some new faces, starting with a new head coach.
Tobias Whitley, the program’s third head coach in the last four years, is certainly not new to the scene. Hill played for Mission in 1997 and 1998.
“I went to Ida B. Wells,” he said, “but we didn’t have a football team and Mission had low numbers, so they let us play there. I spent a lot of time at Mission and made a lot of friends there.”
He’s served as the junior varsity coach over the last several years and will now step into the highest position in the program. While the roster will have its share of fresh faces, many of them are coming from the JV squad and already have familiarity with Whitley’s style.
As for the key returners from last year’s 8-4 team, there will be a handful of them in the backfield. Losing leading rusher Cheeko Wells (628 yards on 79 carries), the Bears are led by quarterback McKinley Oliver and running back Jelani Al-Malik, who helped lead the Bears to last year’s regular season AAA title. A dual-threat quarterback, Oliver finished the season with 1,394 yards between his passing, rushing and return roles. Though he doesn’t have blistering speed, the left-hander’s field vision makes him a major weapon.
“His build and sense of the game reminds me of what Tim Tebow did at Florida,” said Whitley.
Both Oliver and Al-Malik (who rushed for 393 yards on 56 carries as the team’s second-leading rusher) will also be instrumental on defense. Oliver serves as the defensive captain at linebacker, and while Al-Malik has typically played in the secondary, his speed gives him an opportunity to play anywhere.
The biggest question is how much time Oliver and Al-Malik will have to make plays. The line is an inexperienced group, save for Ben Bennett, who impressed as a junior. Bennett primarily plays as a guard and defensive tackle, but can line up at defensive end and can serve as an offensive tackle or center. Like most of Mission’s linemen, he’ll be starting on both sides of the ball.
Whitley noted that getting the rest of the line on the same page has been an obstacle in early practices, and it’s something that the Bears will need to improve in order to succeed.
“It’s been a maturation process,” he said. “Some days, our guys have been disjointed, and we need to be able to get everyone working together.”
Those linemen will be tested from the get-go, with Mission playing the toughest non-league schedule of any AAA team. They make two trips into San Mateo County to play some of the Peninsula Athletic League’s better teams, beginning with a matinee on August 24 at Menlo. Menlo plays in the Bay Division — the PAL’s best — and has played in back-to-back section championship games.
“We want to be ready for league play, and these early games will certainly get us ready,” said Whitley. “Hopefully we’ll bring our best against Menlo and they’ll bring their best against us.”
Non-league play also includes a home opener at Kezar Stadium against Oakland Tech, one that will be played under the lights on August 31. It’s Mission’s lone night game at home, but the Bears do have the luxury of playing all their home games at Kezar. Their other night game is another PAL opponent, a September 14 trip to Sequoia.
“Our schedule is tough early, but we’re not overlooking anybody,” said Whitley. “Our motto is to take it one day at a time, one play at a time, one opponent at a time.”
While some new coaches set lofty goals, Whitley’s plan is to keep things moving day by day. He’s constantly studying film and speaks highly of all ten of Mission’s opponents, knowing that there’s no such thing as an easy week.
There’s still an adjustment period at Mission, but Whitley seems to be up for the task. It could be yet another exciting year for the Bears and their fans, part of what’s been a tremendous swell in support for the program in recent years. Players are always seen supporting the other teams in the athletic department. Yes, having multi-sport athletes helps, but it’s also a testament to the growing culture and sense of community at Mission, one that Whitley hopes to keep growing.