The final scenes of the Lincoln Mustangs’ 2018 football season were almost too perfect to be real.
In the middle of the mass of players and families celebrating a state championship, quarterback Jovon Baker, with tears in his eyes, hugged his mother as Lincoln’s incredible senior class left the field for the final time as champions.
For those seniors, it was an amazing finish to a 13-0 season, including a AAA regular season championship, City playoff title, NorCal championship and the 6A state championship, capping one of the best high school football seasons in San Francisco history. As the 2019 season begins this weekend, the Mustangs, with almost all of its offensive production and its top defenders gone to graduation, have have to learn how to follow perfection.
“We’re obviously going to have a target on our back,” said lineman Leo Gallegos.
While San Francisco teams have posted undefeated seasons and won championships, none until Lincoln had gone 13-0 since Lowell back in 1927. Considering that Lincoln handed then-defending AAA champion Galileo a 52-18 beatdown last year, the Mustangs are well aware of the task at hand for a defending state champion: They’ll have to take every team’s best shot. All nine teams on Lincoln’s schedule this year were on the slate during that 13-0 season.
“We’ve got some talented young men who can make that commitment,” said head coach Phil Ferrigno. “They’re going to play to the level that they feel was left for us.”
Ferrigno, entering his 18th season, will have to replace Baker, his top three rushers, top five receivers and top six tacklers on a defense that held opponents to just 10.7 points per game last season. Much of the team’s backbone, however, is returning in the middle.
Gallegos, Sikoti Manumua and Temani Morris all return to headline a group of linemen that will be paving the way for Lincoln’s new skill players, and they’re ready to embrace the challenges of following up the accolades of 2018. Baker, running back DeSean Crawford and tight end/linebacker Eugene Larios-Felton may be gone, but they passed their mantle of team leadership to the returning linemen.
Much of the returning class has stayed in touch with the now-graduated seniors. Morris personally consulted Larios-Felton for academic help, signing up for AP Psychology at the former middle linebacker’s advice. Coincidentally, Morris will now be handling the same position on defense that Larios-Felton did on the championship team.
“They carried us as captains,” Gallegos said. “I spent the offseason looking at how they led and learning what I could do better. I know that if I stay in touch with the team, communicate and can be a good person to them, we’ll be great on the field.”
Ferrigno has already seen that mentality in his young and yet-to-be-proven roster, speaking highly of both their football IQ and their character.
“I’d even trust them watching my kids,” he said. “If I had money in my wallet, they wouldn’t take it.”
The big names at the skill positions may be gone, but the returning linemen trust in the newcomers.
Luis Contreras, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry as a junior, will replace Baker at starting quarterback in the Mustangs’ run-heavy scheme, while Tyree Cross will be serving as a jack-of-all trades offensively. Lincoln is also expected to rely heavily on junior running back Ahleir Barnett, who was called up from the JV team during his sophomore year and has impressed in fall camp as a junior, earning praise from both Gallegos and Morris.
“He’s stepping up in practice,” Morris said.
Wide receiver Jonas Francovich could serve as a wild card, unknown to opponents after having been sidelined by illnesses for most of his junior year.
With other teams coming at Lincoln with tremendous fire and energy, it’ll be strong fundamental play that could make the difference if the Mustangs are going to stay on top.
“I’ve been taught that size doesn’t matter,” said Morris, who stands at just 5-foot-9 but has shown the ability to hold his own on the field against bigger foes. “The lowest man wins. Coach (Damon) Keeves has taught us that you’ve got to decide who’s going to step up every single play. You have to decide who’s gonna be that man. You have to have that heart and the right mentality.”