In the Academic Athletic Association football playoffs, familiarity breeds upsets.
In the past four seasons and in six of the past seven years, a AAA underdog has beaten a higher seed, and the feeling is fresh in the minds of the players and coaches at Mission High School.
A year ago, after completing an undefeated league season, the Bears were stunned by fourth-seeded Balboa in the AAA semifinals.
This season, the second-place Bears (7-3, 6-1) will take on Lowell (5-4, 4-3) on Thursday at Kezar Stadium, after beating the Cardinals 20-0 just last week.
“We all learned a lot from last year,” Mission coach Joe Albano said. “We’re a different team in a different situation. [The loss to Balboa] has motivated us throughout the season. Now we have a chance to put it behind us.”
Last week, the Mission defense was dominant, holding the Cardinals’ straight-ahead, double-wing rushing attack to just 82 yards in their fourth shutout of the season.
The Bears’ massive defensive line, led by senior Darius Grays, will need to be stout again to stop the Cardinals.
“We’re just trying to take it like we never played that game. We have a fresh outlook,” Albano said. “The key is holding them to zero yards on first down and hopefully get them in a situation where we know what is coming.”
In the other semifinal, top-seeded and undefeated Washington (8-2, 7-0) takes on fourth-seeded Lincoln (4-6, 4-3), which has a history of stunning the league’s top team.
Just two years ago, as the fourth seed, the Mustangs upset top-seeded Washington 40-21 after losing to the Eagles in the regular season.
“You have to play everybody twice if you want to win the championship. That’s just how it is,” Lincoln coach Phil Ferrigno said. “We are a different team. We’re just trying to play better. We always talk about the perfect game and we haven’t gotten there yet. We’re still looking for it.”
The Mustangs’ top priority on defense will be stopping the high-powered Washington rushing attack featuring speedy senior Jamie McHenry and inside runner Lajarie Mabrey, who led the Eagles to a 28-14 regular-season win over Lincoln on Oct. 14.
“We have to tackle and play better,” Ferrigno said. “You can’t let them get going. The line of scrimmage is where the game is won. As our line goes, we go.”
The Lincoln rushing attack features a solid running back tandem as well, with senior Jay’von Fields and junior Demetrius Williams combining for 958 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
Mission and Washington have appeared to be dominant in the regular season, but both teams should be wary of the history of upsets, something Ferrigno has done twice in his 10 years with the program.
“We always have a shot,” Ferrigno said.
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– No. 4 Lincoln at No. 1 Washington, 2 p.m.
– No. 3 Lowell vs. No. 2 Mission at Kezar Stadium, 4 p.m.
– Semifinal winners at Kezar Stadium, Nov. 24, 11 a.m.