By Jeremy Balan
The three Catholic school football teams in the City had varying results in non-league play, but those records may hold little water approaching next week with the beginning of West Catholic Athletic League play.
The WCAL is generally acknowledged as one of the best high school leagues in the state in football, and San Francisco members St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart Cathedral and Archbishop Riordan figure to face uphill battles against a stable of Peninsula and South Bay powers.
The last outright WCAL title won by a City team was Riordan in 2000 (St. Ignatius split a league title with Serra in 2006). St. Ignatius’ only outright WCAL title came in the league’s inaugural season in 1967 and Sacred Heart Cathedral has never won a league title.
“You can’t avoid the talent in this league,” said Sacred Heart Cathedral head coach John Lee. “Every game is a battle, a meat-grinder. There’s no jokes there. Records go out the window.”
Lee and the Fightin’ Irish (3-0) have been the biggest early-season surprise in the City and remain San Francisco’s only remaining undefeated team behind an explosive offense.
The Irish are leading WCAL teams in nearly every offensive category, including total yardage (1479), rushing yards (855), passing yards (624), total touchdowns (18) and total points (125).
Sacred Heart jumps right into that “meat-grinder” in its league opener against 2009 co-league champ Archbishop Mitty of San Jose on the road. The Irish went 1-6 in the WCAL last year, but don’t plan on catching league teams by surprise.
“We saw coaches from other schools in the stands when we played Terra Nova and St. Mary’s, so we must be doing something right,” Lee said. “But at the same time, we’ve gone and watched the other schools in the league as well. It’s about respect.”
While the Irish have been hot from the start of the season, St. Ignatius (1-1-1) has been getting consistently better each week after a disheartening loss to Marin Catholic of Kentfield in its opener.
The Wildcats tied a solid Milpitas team in their second game and beat upstart Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland last week.
“We’ve been improving, without a doubt,” said St. Ignatius head coach Steve Bluford. “They were disappointed in their opening performance and they’re starting to play the way we expect them to. It’s good to see.”
St. Ignatius is led by dual-threat seniors Zac Shuller and Jacob Brisbane, who drive the Wildcats’ run-heavy attack as running backs, along with solid contributions on defense.
“They are team leaders,” Bluford said. “They work hard to inspire their teammates in their own ways, setting the example and setting the tone for the rest of the team.”
St. Ignatius and Sacred Heart enter league play on relative hot streaks, but non-league outcomes have been bleak for Riordan (0-3), which lost its first three games by a combined 155-61.
This season will undoubtedly be a rebuilding effort for Riordan head coach Bryan Blake, who has struggled with low numbers and key injuries early in the season.
“We’re low in numbers and we’re paying for that,” Blake said. “On the positive side our kids are growing and we’re laying the foundation for the future.”
The lone bright spot for the Crusaders has been explosive senior wide receiver A.J. Lewis, who leads the league in catches (11), receiving yards (329) and receiving touchdowns (4), along with filling holes in the Crusaders secondary as a safety and cornerback.
“He’s a big-time player,” Blake said. “Teams will rotate their coverage to him and he still finds a way to make the plays.”
All three teams enter the WCAL season at different stages of development, but one thing is certain — it won’t be easy.
“Our league is as good as there is in the state,” Blake said. “It’s seven games in a row, no byes, no breaks, no weak links.”