Galileo football winning the state title is a prime example of San Francisco public schools’ athletic ascendence in the last couple years. (Courtesy Robert Schnitzer/Galileo Athletics)

Galileo’s title caps off banner year for SF public schools

San Francisco is a city of champions. No, not the 49ers. Even if “San Francisco” is still in their name, they’re in the developmental stage. The Warriors? They won’t play in The City for another couple of years. And the Giants are coming off a 64-98 season.

San Francisco is home to two teams that won state and a third Northern California champion that earned a trip but ultimately fell in a state title game. The two are the first San Francisco high school teams to win the highest prize since Sacred Heart Cathedral won a girls volleyball title in 2014.

So what made this year so special? Both titles were won by public schools, something that had never happened before in San Francisco even once, let alone twice.

Mission won the Division III basketball championship with an overtime win over Villa Park in March, and Galileo won the Division 6-A football championship on Saturday in Calexico. While Lincoln volleyball was the third City team to win a Northern California title. Although the Mustangs fell short in the championship game, they still broke San Francisco records by becoming the first AAA volleyball team to win any more than a play-in game in the state tournament.

That’s right, the same league that was referred to as an “athletic wasteland” in a 2001 San Francisco Chronicle article produced two state champions and another groundbreaking squad in a calendar year.

What’s the reason for the dramatic turnaround?

A few special individual athletes don’t hurt. Mission had one of the best basketball players and all-around athletes in San Francisco history in Niamey Harris, and Galileo has sophomore running back Yarvell Smith, who is on his way to becoming the best high school running back from San Francisco in the last 50 years. Caitlyn Chin was named league MVP for Lincoln volleyball.

But individual players don’t make championship teams by themselves.

Mission had a brilliant starting lineup and a bench that coach Arnold Zelaya could turn to at any time. Galileo’s cast of characters came in all shapes and sizes, including 5-foot-3 quarterback Adrian Poot, receiver/defensive back hybrid Jackie Guo and Joseph Ale, a 250-pound freshman who played on both the offensive and defensive lines. Chin was accompanied by Sarah Blumenfeld and Lana Radakovic, who led the way as Lincoln posted a 36-9 record on the season, including 31 victories in straight sets.

Even with all that talent, these public schools have to overcome a laundry list of obstacles. Most SFUSD high schools don’t have feeder schools like their suburban counterparts. It’s not like the bulk of students from a middle school go to a specific high school. The three WCAL schools and other private schools, parochial and secular, attract star athletes from around The City, and others travel to San Mateo, Marin County or into the East Bay.

But it doesn’t hurt to have a commissioner like Don Collins. He’s done a masterful job with the section since taking over in December 2001, not long after the “athletic wasteland” article was published.

“You have a massive amount of diversity that goes beyond racial diversity,” Collins explained. “You have people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds.”

That diversity was represented brilliantly over the weekend by Galileo, led by Vietnamese-American head coach Mark Huynh. His assistant coaches come from a wide mix of backgrounds as well.

Collins has also been successful in securing more funds for athletic departments. Schools received $8,000 a year for athletics in 2001. Now, larger schools are given between $40,000 and $60,000 annually in discretionary funds. Their smaller counterparts receive between $20,000 and $30,000.

“It doesn’t meet all of our needs,” said Collins, “but it’s a massive improvement over what it was.”

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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