As the Lincoln Mustangs got set for a third-quarter kickoff return last Thursday, lineman Leo Gallegos hoisted himself up from a knee on the sideline and barked at his teammates: They had 10 men on the field.
After that was corrected, and as James Walsh spun out of a tackle on the return, Gallegos continued yelling, telling his fellow senior to tuck the ball as he approached the home sideline. “This is our last home game for the seniors,” Gallegos said after the 41-12 league semifinal win over Lowell. “I didn’t want to go out with the sideline being quiet.”
A year removed from a state title, Gallegos has helped guide an inattentive and at times error-prone Lincoln team that’s far from the perfection of the 2018 group. At 9-1 and 6-0 in league play, though, the Mustangs will return to the AAA title game on Thursday for the second straight year, facing a Balboa team that nearly toppled them less than a month ago.
“We have something to prove,” Gallegos said after last week’s win over the Cardinals, “because our last year’s team was led by a whole group of seniors that were the best teammates ever.”
Gallegos, the best two-way lineman in the league, has provided the steadying influence missing since the graduation of six All-City selections, including The Examiner’s Offensive Player of the Year Jovon Baker. He’s played through multiple injuries and started on both sides of the ball.
Only hospitalization has kept Gallegos off the field. Two weeks ago, the hard-hitting senior felt his throat tighten after school, and he had to be rushed to the emergency room on Tuesday night. He had surgery to address an abscess in his throat, and stayed in the hospital for three days. He spent that week’s game against Galileo on the sidelines.
“It was pretty tough, because it was my last regular-season game, and I didn’t know, I knew we were going to play, but it was tough not being out there,” Gallegos said.
In his absence, the Mustangs blasted the winless Lions 46-0, displaying the improvement that head coach Phil Ferrigno has been seeking all season long.
“They’re a good group, they’re nice kids, they play hard, but I’ve got a tougher swath to cut [than last year],” Ferrigno said. “Just got to keep on them and make sure they pay attention.”
In 2018, the Mustangs were, as Ferrigno has said, a well-oiled machine. They went 13-0 en route to a Division 6A state championship, outscoring opponents 428-128, a differential that would be higher had Lowell’s administration not decided unilaterally to forfeit over the objections of their football team.
This year, though, Lincoln has at times been sloppy, showing little attention to detail. Over the first eight games, the Mustangs fumbled 10 times and tallied just 11 takeaways. It drove Ferrigno batty, culminating in a tight, 17-14 double-overtime win over Balboa. The win required two Lincoln safeties and 268 rushing yards on 51 carries from running back Luis Contreras to keep the Mustangs from losing their first regular-season league game since Nov. 18, 2017.
Since that game against Balboa — no other win the Mustangs have had this season has been by fewer than 16 points —Lincoln has racked up seven takeaways, turning the ball over just three times and beating their last two opponents by a combined score of 87-12.
“We’ve got a lot of new kids playing who didn’t get a lot of time last year,” Ferrigno said. “I think they play hard, and that’s all we can ask. I think in the last two weeks, we’ve come along pretty well.”
Two seasons ago, Contreras had stepped in quarterback at the midway point after Baker went down with an injury, but with Baker’s return last year, Contreras relegated to defense, where his lackluster work ethic irritated Ferrigno, especially given his talent. Knowing he’d have to make up for Baker and Crawford’s production this year, Contreras has taken on a new leadership role.
After the narrow win over the Buccaneers, Contreras began showing up early, bringing teammates with him. He continued his march toward one of the most prolific rushing seasons in school history. With 183 yards in the semifinal win over Lowell, he now has 1,973 for the season, 351 yards back of David Henderson for the second-most single-season rushing yards in school history.
Contreras is aided by Ahleir Barnett (74 carries for 419 yards) and two-way star Tyree Cross, who, along with gaining 261 yards on 33 carries as a fullback, has racked up a team-leading 90 tackles this season.
Armed with those rushers, Gallegos, a pair of bookend two-way junior linemen in twins Jonathan and Justin Chow, senior linebacker Nick Walker — who has stepped into Gaughan’s role from a year ago — and senior defensive end Temani Morris (who plows the way for Contreras on offense), Lincoln has started to hum. Last week, the Mustangs also got senior Sikoti Manamua back after he’d gone down early in the season with a cracked ankle. Coming into the title game against Balboa, they’ll be as healthy as they’ve been all year.
While Ferrigno described last season’s team as a Porsche, this one is more of a Buick. “You just have to keep driving it and get it better,” Ferrigno said. “It’s concentration and becoming that fine-tuned machine. We’re not there yet.”
Lincoln and Balboa kick off at 11 a.m. at Kezar Stadium.