Over the last two seasons, San Francisco high schools have entered a golden age of football, producing victories and titles at rates not seen since the days of O.J. Simpson racing past defenders at Galileo.
Simpson’s alma mater and Lincoln have combined to claim back-to-back state titles, giving tangible evidence to the rise of football in a city that had seen the sport take a backseat to many others at the prep level.
Even as the teams that call San Francisco home often have dealt with small rosters and limited field space for practices and the absence for many of Friday-night lights, football in the fog has been on a steady upward swing over the past few years, for both private and public schools.
To keep the recent run going, though, will require success under some new parameters. The playoff formats in both the Central Coast Section and at the state level have been modified, with repercussions that could be seen at the end of the year.
Academic Athletic Association
In the AAA, it’s business as usual, with seven teams each playing six league games and the top four advancing to the playoffs. Defending champion Lincoln will return to the field against largely the same schedule as last year — once again facing Capuchino, Piedmont and El Camino in nonleague play — but the Mustangs will be doing so without many of its biggest contributors from last season.
Quarterback Jovon Baker and running back Desean Crawford both graduated from the 13-0 state championship team, as did wide receivers Ajani Adewusi and Eugene Larios-Felton, plus five of the Mustangs’ top six tacklers. Tyree Cross does return and is expected to make a significant impact on both sides of the ball, listed as a tight end and fullback. He was the No. 2 tackler last year on a team that allowed just 10.7 points per game and pitched four shutouts, including back-to-back goose eggs over Balboa and Mission to win the City playoff title.
While replacing Baker’s production will be a massive hurdle for Lincoln to clear, junior Jalen Williams — who boasts an athletic 6-foot-3 frame — is currently listed as the lone quarterback on the team’s roster. He had just one reception and four carries in sporadic playing time as a sophomore, but he did run for 101 yards on those four carries, including a touchdown.
With star running back and former AAA Player of the Year Yarvell Smith having returned to his home town of Cincinnati, quarterback Ronald Fox having graduated and a new head coach thrown into the mix, the scene at Galileo is also largely uncertain. Tackle Joseph Ale should be back from his torn ACL on the verge of a monster junior season. He impressed as a freshman when the Lions became the first San Francisco team to ever bring home a state football title, and his absence last season proved costly. Who he’ll be blocking for, though, remains uncertain, as Jimmie Edwards III also graduated. Junior Matthew Tu — at 5-foot-5 — could be starting at quarterback.
Burton is another wild card in the picture this year, having threatened for a playoff spot last year behind quarterback Alfonzo Smith, who showed off dynamic playmaking ability in the open field as a junior.
Other key returning players around the AAA include Balboa running back AJ Velasquez — the son of head coach Fred Velasquez who took an unofficial visit to Oregon in April and received his first official offer from Whittier College last month — and Mission’s Mission dynamic offensive weapon and speedy three-sport star Julian Milton.
West Catholic Athletic League
Both Sacred Heart Cathedral and St. Ignatius showed significant growth last season behind young quarterbacks.
Cian Dowling led SHC to a Bruce-Mahoney victory over the Wildcats and all the way into the CCS semifinals before finally bowing out against Sacred Heart Prep.
St. Ignatius junior Zach Taylor-Smith led the Wildcats to wins over both Mitty and Bellarmine to sneak into the playoffs, but they, too, fell to SHP, losing in the quarterfinals after a week’s worth of delays due to wildfire smoke. St. Ignatius will have a chance to exact some revenge on the Gators when they meet in Atherton on Sept. 7. Fans hoping to get a chance to watch Taylor-Smith’s senior season and linebacker Siaki Gallegos-Hunkin — who impressed as a sophomore after a midseason callup from JV — will mainly be doing so on Saturday afternoons. SI — which lost running back Jahsai Shannon to Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas — has just three Friday night games, including the Bruce-Mahoney Game at Kezar Stadium on Sept. 27.
While the Wildcats and Fightin’ Irish can count on their fields being ready — with SI playing on campus at J.B. Murphy Field and SHC calling Kezar home — the same can’t be said for Riordan. With ongoing renovations to Mayer Family Field at The Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Athletic Complex, the Crusaders are still working to determine sites for their four home games.
All three of Riordan’s nonleague games will be on the road, including Mark Modeste’s head coaching debut at Terra Nova on August 30. There is a chance of the field being finished in time for the Stanfel Cup against SHC on Nov. 9 to close the regular season, but until then, the Crusaders will likely be playing home games at City College and Terra Nova.
The playoffs will be a new ballgame for the WCAL teams this year, as the CCS has ditched its format of Open divisions, instead seeding all 40 of its playoff teams throughout five divisions. In the prior four seasons, the CCS designated the top three divisions as Open divisions, with both the champion and runner-up eligible for the state playoffs. As the CIF now only allows section champions to advance to the postseason, the CCS has shifted back to five standard divisions, simply cutting the teams into groups of eight. This means that the eighth-ranked team will be forced to contend with the top team in the entire section, while the ninth will be at home against the 16th-ranked side in Division II.
Additional changes could come at the state level, with AAA teams having dominated Division 6 over the last two years. With the league’s perception improving, it’s possible that teams are moved up into higher divisions for state playoffs, increasing the challenge to extend the current run of City excellence.
It may be an uncertain road ahead for many of the San Francisco football teams, but whatever path is taken this year should make for a compelling one.