Lincoln’s James Walsh (86) hoists the Academic Athletic Association football league championship trophy at Kezar Stadium after beating Balboa in the Turkey Day Game on Nov. 28, 2019. (Ethan Kassel / Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF Preps: Lincoln wins second straight AAA championship

Ahleir Barnett’s big play carries Lincoln to Turkey Day win over Balboa

KEZAR STADIUM — At the start of the season, Lincoln’s seniors anointed Ahleir Barnett as the Mustangs’ next big thing.

On Thursday, the junior showed off his potential on the biggest stage, hauling in a 45-yard pass with 13 seconds left in the first half for the lone touchdown in Lincoln’s 10-0 Turkey Day Game victory over the Balboa Buccaneers to capture the Academic Athletic Association title.

“It felt good,” Barnett said. “I was able to put my team in a better situation.”

The championship was the Mustangs’ second in a row, both by shutout, and the third in the last four seasons. It was also Lincoln’s 12th overall title, and eighth under head coach Phil Ferrigno, who guided last year’s team to the Division 6-A state championship.

“I’m not out to show everybody what a great coach I am,” Ferrigno said. “I’m just trying to get guys together and work towards a common goal. It’s not about the Xs and Os, it’s the Jerrys and Joes, as they say.”

Out of timeouts with 15 seconds left in the half, an incompletion likely would have motivated Ferrigno to run the ball and send the game into halftime scoreless, but quarterback Jonas Francovich found a streaking Barnett down the middle.

“When I saw the corners go to the same side, it gave me an open lane,” Barnett said. “It was a great pass and everything else was history.”

Barnett’s touchdown stood out as by far the biggest offensive play in what was otherwise a vintage defensive struggle. Lincoln (10-1) allowed just 113 yards on the day, with 30 coming on one play. When the Buccaneers went three-and-out to open the second half, it opened a door for the Mustangs, who got their longest run play of the day — a 19-yard carry by Luis Contreras — to set up Kevin Murrieta’s 32-yard field goal to open up a two-score lead.

While Barnett and Contreras waited in the wings last year as they watched Jovon Baker and Desean Crawford lead the Mustangs through an unbeaten season to a state championship, Murrieta wasn’t even playing football. He was attending City Arts and Tech, a charter school without an athletic department.

“It’s been awesome,” Murrieta said of his first year playing organized football. “I love the boys.”

When his kick went through the uprights with 4:54 left in the third quarter, it all but assured the Mustangs’ second consecutive title, considering how brilliant their defense had been. Balboa (6-6) did go on one long drive in response, with a tremendous catch by Orlindale Carraway for a 30-yard completion from Raiden Thien-Jones, but the Mustangs held in the red zone in the final minute of the quarter, with Tyree Cross knocking down a pass in the end zone for a turnover on downs.

“Style points don’t matter,” Ferrigno told his team following the victory.

Considering that the Mustangs gained just 198 yards of their own, it would be hard to award them too many style points, but Thursday’s game was just the type they thrive in.

Contreras had carried the ball 40 times, and though he was limited to a season-low 117 yards and only had one run for more than 10 yards, he still put together the sort of performance needed for his team to control the ball for 30 minutes and 46 seconds.

“He’s a tough little guy,” Ferrigno said. “He plays hard and I’m happy that he’s a part of our team. He’s a guy we took our chances on, and he got himself together.”

Though the game itself may have been business as usual for the Mustangs, playing on a frigid Thanksgiving morning at a damp Kezar Stadium was an experience that wasn’t lost on Ferrigno or his players.

“They knew what the moment was,” the 18-year head coach said. “As a program, we’re very fortunate that we’re able to be here a lot. I never take that for granted.”

Balboa also wasn’t going to take the chance to play on such a big stage lightly, having gone without a title since 1984. Thursday marked the third time this decade the Buccaneers have played in the Turkey Day Game, but the senior class that lifted the program back to relevance after a winless 2017 couldn’t capture the league’s top prize.

“This season meant a lot for me,” said Balboa safety and running back Jaziah Amataga. “I lost my auntie in the middle of the season, she’s like a mother figure to me, and I just wanted to take it all the way for her. To see this, we’re going to depart on a note like this, and it’s not something anybody wanted.”

Moving the ball was difficult for the Buccaneers all day. Amataga hardly got to run in any short-yardage situations as there were few for him to take advantage of. Though Roman Banks did gain 40 yards on his nine carries, Balboa ran for just 56 yards overall. Thien-Jones went 6-of-11 through the air for 57 yards, but Lincoln was able to post the shutout by getting a pair of fourth-down stops and a second quarter Sikoti Manumua fumble recovery.

“We made a lot of mistakes on the front line,” head coach Fred Velasquez said. “We only have one senior that started today on that line. We have a freshman and three sophomores. We’re there where we want to be.”

Considering the Buccaneers’ youth, both on the varsity squad and a JV team that took first place for a third year in a row, it would be fair to expect them to be vying for a spot in the title game again next year.

For now, though, it’s Lincoln’s time. Come Sunday, the Mustangs will find out where they’ll head for the Northern California playoffs.

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