LINCOLN HIGH SCHOOL — Standing in the middle of Lincoln’s football field, Mustangs head coach Phil Ferrigno barked at his players to clean up the sideline, pick up the trash and put away benches.
Following Lincoln’s first perfect season and a state title a year ago, the Mustangs lost their top playmakers, and have battled themselves for most of a very imperfect 2019. Ferrigno has struggled to get his young team to focus on the details.
On Thursday, on a day running back Luis Contreras cracked the top three in single-season rushers in Lincoln history, the Mustangs were sloppy and were outscored in the second half, but they still danced, Bernie leaned and chanted after clinching their second straight Academic Athletic Association championship appearance with a 41-12 win over Lowell.
“We ain’t looking for average; we’re looking for the best,” Ferrigno said. “We’ve got a lot of new kids playing who didn’t get a lot of time last year, and they’re learning how to play. They play hard, and that’s all we can ask. In the last two weeks, we’ve come along pretty well, just as a team, but I just don’t like the mistakes.”
By the end, Contreras — who rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries — was begging to get back into the game in the fourth quarter to try and crack 2,000 yards. He settled for reaching 1,973, moving him into third place on the program’s all-time single-season list. He now trails only David Henderson, who rushed for 2,324 yards in 2005, and 2,404 in 2006.
“They wanted to save me for Turkey Day,” Contreras said.
Contreras was pulled up to varsity two years ago to serve as the emergency replacement for quarterback Jovon Baker, but with Baker healthy last year, Contreras was relegated to playing almost entirely defense during the Mustangs’ state title run.
“He’s a great kid who plays hard, and I’ve grown to like him,” Ferrigno said. “I didn’t like him a lot last year. He just wasn’t into it. He’s a guy who, everything comes easy. He works hard, and we taught him how to work.”
With Baker — The Examiner’s Offensive Player of the Year — gone, along with top running back Desean Crawford, kicker Isaac Kolberg, linebacker and fullback Jack Gaughn, tight end Eugene Larios-Felton, receiver Jalen Williams and wide receiver Ajani Adewusi, Contreras was tasked with replacing a lot of offensive production.
“He’s smart, but he was lazy, because everything comes easy, so everything’s last-minute,” Ferrigno said. “This year, he’s been showing up. He’s a leader.”
Coming into Thursday’s AAA semifinal, Contreras had accounted for 2,028 of the Mustangs’ 3,724 all-purpose yards, and he got off to a quick start against the Cardinals. After James Walsh batted down a third-down pass and Tyree Cross dragged down punter Jeremiah Hizon at the five on a botched punt, Contreras punched in a five-yard touchdown with 10:16 to go in the first quarter.
After Lincoln held Lowell (5-5-1) at its own 19 to force a punt, Contreras peeled off a pair of 19-yard runs sandwiched around a seven-yarder. Quarterback Jonas Francovich then recovered his own fumble for a three-yard touchdown with 8:13 to go in the first to make the score 14-0.
Contreras broke two tackles at the start of the second quarter to score a 28-yard touchdown, and added a six-yard score with 4:54 to go in the half to make it 28-0. A 20-yard Cross touchdown run with 1:05 left before halftime grew the lead to 34-0, and in the midst of that drive, Contreras peeled off a six-yard run to pass Eric Beverly on the all-time single-season rushing list. Beverly ran for 1,930 yards in 2008. He didn’t even know it had happened.
“I just wanted to break 2,000,” he said.
Lowell, playing in its first playoff game since 2013, didn’t cross midfield until there were seconds left in the first half, with quarterback Reese Miller copleting three straight passes before Walsh forced an incomplete to stall the drive.
The Cardinals started to drive out of the break, until a fumble on their own 31 was scooped up by Nick Walker (three stops on the day) with 8:35 to go in the third, but the Mustangs’ own fumble three minutes later — followed by a sack from Nikolai Hungate (a sack, a TFL and a blocked punt) — led to a missed field goal.
It didn’t take long, though, for Lincoln (9-1) to get back on the board, as Andres Montoya took advantage of a falling receiver for a 27-yard pick six with 4:53 to go to make it 41-0.
With mostly reserves in for the Mustangs, Lincoln let up a bit, much to Ferrigno’s consternation. Lawrence Jiang ripped off a 45-yard kickoff return, and Benjamin Ng sprinted for a 17-yard gain to get down to the Lincoln 18. After a sack by Sikoti Manumua (three tackles, 1.5 TFLs and a sack) — playing in his first game since the opener due to a foot fracture — Ronald Pollick hit Jairo Archila for a 20-yard gain to get down to the Lincoln one. A sack by Temani Morris pushed the Cardinals back, but Adrian Navarro found the left edge on the very next play for a six-yard touchdown with 1:29 to go in the third.
Lowell forced a three-and-out, with a Hungate punt block giving the Cardinals the ball at the Lincoln 10, and Pollick proceded to trot in for a five-yard touchdown with 8:46 to go in regulation. The Mustangs, though, ground clock, and Lowell couldn’t capitalize on a 34-yard pass from Miller to Hizon on a hurry-up final drive.
Lincoln held Lowell to just 133 yards of offense on the day, racking up five tackles for loss. Despite the score, the Cardinals had some defensive stars, with Pollick tallying five tackles and Hizon leading the team with six. sophomore Joshua Huynh had two tackles, including one for a loss.
The Mustangs will now face Balboa in the Thanksgiving Day final. The Buccaneers (6-5) out-dueled Mission for the second straight week, winning 25-24 to reach their first AAA title game since 2015. The last time the two teams met, it took two overtimes to beat the Buccaneers 17-14.
“We’ve got to get our mind right,” Contreras said. “Last time was a close game with Bal.”
Said senior lineman Leo Gallegos: “We have something to prove.”