ARCHIE CHAGONJIAN STADIUM — Following a chaotic 25-24 win over the Mission Bears that took three hours and finished with sunlight fading away, Balboa’s Roman Banks grabbed the nearest Gatorade container he could find and poured it over his own head.
“They missed the coach, so I picked it up and did it,” he said.
Head coach Fred Velasquez inherited a winless team and turned them into a playoff squad last season, and now, the Buccaneers have a chance to win their first Academic Athletic Association title since 1984. To do it, they’ll have to go through reigning state champion Lincoln, who beat them in a waterlogged semifinal a year ago.
“It’s a mission every year for Balboa to try to get back to the Turkey Day Game and win it,” said Velasquez, who guided his team to a near-upset of the Mustangs in a 17-14 double-overtime loss earlier this year.
The path to getting back to the program’s first Turkey Day game since 2015 was a weird one.
Banks intercepted a pass in the end zone with 3:21 left, but caught up in the thrill of the moment, he tried to take it out of the end zone before realizing the wiser decision would have been to sit down and take a touchback. Pinned at the one-yard line, Mission quickly stuffed fullback Edward Colon in the end zone for a safety and got one last chance at life, trailing by a single point.
“I saw that and realized we had to go do it again,” Banks said. “All that was on my mind was getting the ball back. We had to win it. I’ve worked too hard for this.”
On fourth down two minutes later, the spotlight found Banks again. Needing 14 yards from the Balboa 36, Bears quarterback Jamareia Burroughs threw a near-perfect ball for Matthew Cohn at the front corner of the end zone, but Banks managed to steer him out of bounds before he could get a foot down, all the while avoiding a pass interference penalty like he had been called for earlier to make his interception necessary.
That penalty had come on a fourth-and-5 at the 16 with 4:13 left when Balboa (6-5) still led by three, with Burroughs throwing a pass out of Cohn’s reach as Banks never turned around, forcing the flag. It was one of 24 penalties between the two teams on the day, and there would have been a few more if not for a few flags that the referees decided to pick up and a couple of offsetting infractions.
The laundry littered the field throughout the final drive after the safety punt as well, starting with a too many men penalty to put Mission (4-6-1) at the 38. The Bears would have been turned back to midfield on the next play as Burroughs tossed to Cohn after corralling a high snap, and Cohn tried futilely to break away from the defense, losing more and more yardage on the process, but his facemask was grabbed as he was brought down.
From there, Will Delaney (12 carries for 71 yards) managed to pick up a first down, setting the Bears up at the 32 with 1:40 to play. Mission dug deep into the playbook with Cohn taking a lateral and trying to throw for Julian Milton, but Banks was able to get in the way of the pass. Sophomore Ben Norori, a JV callup, nearly intercepted a pass on the next play, and defensive tackle Sakaria Haro, who had been quiet on the afternoon after dominating the teams’ last meeting on Friday, knocked Burroughs to the ground for a loss of four. That set up one last chance for Mission with 1:06 left, and Banks was able to play the deep pass perfectly to force the incompletion.
“I’ve just got to keep my hand on his hip, keep my eye on the receiver and play the ball as best as I can,” Banks said.
Mission had to come back from a 12-point deficit to force the final play. A Phil Lenwood-Lamautia blocked punt set up one of Balboa’s two touchdowns that came courtesy of short fields. A horse collar flag as Balboa quarterback Raiden Thien-Jones was brought down advanced the ball to the 7, and Jaziah Amataga took it in on the next play to give the home side a 12-7 lead early in the second quarter.
The lead grew to 19-7 as Burroughs tried to fight his way out of a Ray Jones sack, paving the way for Nelson Ropati to strip the ball and rumble 25 yards for another TD.
Mission would quickly answer before the half with a 29-yard Milton kick return to set up a 23-yard Burroughs-to-Cohn touchdown pass, but the Buccaneer defense would come up big again in the third as Amataga picked off a pass on fourth-and-goal, returning it 67 yards to Mission’s 28. With the short field to work with again, Banks ran for back-to-back nine-yard gains, leading to Thien-Jones’ four-yard touchdown to Chris Whiley to put the Buccaneers up by 11.
Balboa drove into Bears territory in the waning moments of the third quarter, but the first of Dean Manley’s two sacks cost the Buccaneers 15 yards and eventually led to a punt. With momentum starting to swing in Mission’s favor, Burroughs launched a bomb over the middle for Julian Neal, who made the most of his only catch on the day, taking it to the house for a 78-yard touchdown. Delaney took a screen pass from Burroughs to cut the lead to three, and after another Manley sack, Balboa punted again.
From there, Mission went for the first of two bids to take the lead, with Delaney gaining 11 yards on a shovel pass and Noah Lee grabbing eight on a screen to convert third-and-7. A nine-yard run from Delaney on the next play took the Bears down to the 12, but a false start took them backwards and eventually set up fourth-and-five, on which head coach Tobias Whitley decided to play for the lead rather than the tie. While Cohn had been excellent in the kicking game, he did have a punt blocked earlier in the game, and the decision to keep the offense out paid off, at least temporarily, as Banks was flagged for PI.
The Bucs were outgained 286-159 on the day, with their two longest plays being runs of 33 and 44 yards by Banks, with the 44-yarder setting up Amataga’s first touchdown — a three-yard plunge to cut the lead to 7-6. Amataga finished the day with a hard-earned 43 rushing yards on 11 carries, 15 receiving yards and a huge interception, all while battling a variety of injuries.
“I had a stinger in the second quarter and in the beginning of the third quarter it started hurting, but I had to put aside what I was feeling and muster up some strength to put on for my team,” Amataga said after dealing with both the stinger in his pectoral area and cramps up and down his left leg in the second half, causing him to have to leave the field from time to time but never miss more than one or two plays. “It’s just the character we have. Nobody else has seen it outside of our school and our family, but this is all built from inside.”
Largely written off after losing star running back AJ Velasquez — Fred’s son — to ACL and meniscus injuries, the Buccaneers went 0-4 in nonleague play, facing the third-ranked team in the state of Washington and the 35th-ranked team in California. The Buccaneers managed to rally together to finish second in the AAA in the regular season and earn a championship berth.
“Everybody talked down on us, teams were telling the news we were paper champs,” said Banks, who ran 13 times for 113 yards. “They see us now.”
For Mission, it meant the end of a year where the Bears fell short of their goal to win another City title, but did make enormous strides off the field, with more than 20 players making the school’s honor roll and four of their players becoming eligible after improving their grades during nonleague play.
“It’s overlooked because nobody expected the kids we have to be where they’re at. It’s highly important,” said Whitley, whose sentiments were echoed in a lengthy postgame discussion by assistant coach Glendon Glaspie, who played at Balboa when future NFLer McLeod Bethel-Thompson played quarterback.
With Bethel-Thompson under center, the Buccaneers fell short of the championship in both 2004 and 2005, playing on Thanksgiving at Kezar Stadium but losing both times. They also fell short in 2010 and 2015, but this year’s group will have a chance next week to do something that Balboa hasn’t seen since Ronald Reagan was serving his first term as president.