By Gideon Rubin
Special to the S.F. Examiner
The memories remain vivid for Andres Montoya. His Lincoln High football teammates were jumping up and down. Coaches celebrated like they were kids, and the large trophy shimmered as classmates and relatives rushed the field on a late fall afternoon last year.
“I was running up to my teammates and giving everyone hugs,” Montoya, then a junior, recalls. His team, the Mustangs, was celebrating its second straight state championship after a 35-26 victory over Gardena (Orange County) in the Division 7-AA title game at City College of San Francisco last December.
“It was just the best thing ever,” he said.
Montoya and his Lincoln teammates were hoping for even better things this year: the pursuit of a third straight title that would move them into dynasty territory.
It’s not clear now if they’ll get that chance.
Montoya and his teammates are among thousands of San Francisco student-athletes for whom the coronavirus crisis has cast uncertainty on their upcoming season.
The California Interscholastic Federation — the state’s governing body for high school sports — announced over the summer a delay to the start of the season for all fall sports including football until January of next year, with practices not allowed to start until mid-December.
And even that’s no sure thing.
“Obviously moving our calendar back so our practices start in December and games in January doesn’t put off the fact that there’s still a pandemic out there,” San Francisco Section Commissioner Don Collins said.
Collins said the impact of coronavirus on plans to start fall sports in January probably won’t be known until late November. He said the possibility exists for some flexibility on the Dec. 14 date for the start of practices, but acknowledged further delays could imperil fall sports.
“You can only move it back so far before you have a dilemma,” Collins said.
The CIF is broken up into 10 sections, three of which include San Francisco student-athletes — the San Francisco, Central Coast and North Coast sections — and different sections are under different restrictions.
St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart Cathedral and Riordan, which compete in the Central Coast Section, can start limited afterschool sports-related activities as extended physical education classes in small groups, but the drills can’t officially be tied to the sports programs.
“The goal is to get kids to be active again,” St. Ignatius football coach John Regalia said.
San Francisco Section schools can’t hold such activities. That’s an added disadvantage for many programs, Lincoln football coach Phil Ferrigno said, noting that most San Francisco public school programs don’t have lights and will be limited to daylight hours amid some of the year’s shortest days.
“I think everybody’s going to have a hard time, but it seems like everything’s working against us,” he said.
Senior Mustangs right guard Jonathon Chow just hopes his team gets a chance to “defend what we’ve earned.”
But without organized practices, all the Mustangs can do is encourage each other to work out on their own – no easy task for anyone who’s tried to turn their living room into a gym while sheltering in place.
“When you’re on the field practicing, your teammates are there, you’re practicing together and that makes it more fun,” Chow said.
“You’re stuck in a box basically” working out at home.
With inspiration in short supply during these tough times, the possibility that there might be a season to look forward to at least provides some hope.
“Having that to think about, that the season might go on, that kind of motivates us,” said Mustangs right tackle Justin Chow, Jonathon’s identical twin brother.
Montoya said he and his teammates motivate each other on video chats and occasionally play 7-on-7 pickup games at local parks.
The 5-foot-7, 175-pounder works out about an hour a day out of his garage with dumbbells, a lifting bar and an indoor bike.
Montoya and the Chow brothers are among several Lincoln players with collegiate aspirations that are complicated by the pandemic.
A cancellation of the season would be a potentially damaging blow, eliminating the possibility of having film to showcase their skills to college scouts.
“We’re in a tough spot,” Montoya said. “We don’t know if we’re going to get a year this year, so we don’t know if we’re going to get that year to prove ourselves” to colleges.
CCSF football coach Jimmy Collins acknowledged the potential lack of exposure to be a concern but said he doesn’t believe it’s a deal-breaker. He said relationships his coaching staff has developed with city programs will help bridge the gap. Collins is more concerned about the impact of a prolonged absence from a development standpoint.
“The exposure is one thing, I think everyone is facing that similar issue,” Collins said. “The development I think is a bigger issue for taking the next step from high school to college football no matter what level they play.”
Montoya’s senior year figures to be especially important from a development standpoint. He’d never played organized football before last year and was expected to compete for a featured running back position after playing behind Luis Contreras, the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Montoya comes from a soccer family and is the first in his family to play football. He played basketball and ran track in middle school.
“He’s strong and fast, and he’s tough to bring down,” Ferrigno said.
But competing for championships and collegiate opportunities is a small part of the high school athletics experience.
“Discipline, dedication and desire,” Jonathon Chow said, repeating the mantra his team’s coaches have instilled, along with the idea of playing for something bigger than himself, which he believes will carry over into academics and other areas of his life.
“In college you’ve got to work hard to prepare yourself for your future and you have to learn how to work with other people,” he said.
Some aspects of the educational experience can be more easily replicated in a virtual environment. The life lessons high school athletes learn on fields and gyms, however, aren’t easily taught on Zoom screens.
“Obviously, practices are going to be rough, people are going to disagree, stuff is going to happen, but that’s the stuff that you miss later on,” Montoya said.
“The people you love, it doesn’t come without bumps and bruises, and that’s just part of the whole process that made winning so much better, because we got to work it out and see it pay off on the field.”