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By Jeremy Balan
Of the six long-standing football programs in the Academic Athletic Association, Balboa High School has one of the longest championship droughts, going without a Turkey Day title since 1984.
This year appeared to be just another title-less season for the Buccaneers (5-7), when they dropped all four of their non-league games and waited until the last week of the regular season to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the AAA.
But after beating previously league unbeaten and top-seeded Mission 28-8 in the semifinals, the Bucs are the hottest team in the AAA.
“It’s always good when you’re on a roll,” Balboa coach Alvaro Carvajal said. “The momentum is good and the feeling around here is very energized.”
While Balboa is surging into the championship game at Kezar Stadium today at 11 a.m., its opponent, second-seeded Washington (9-2), is limping a bit. After routing Galileo 55-13 in the final game of the regular season, the Eagles escaped with a 19-13 win in the semifinal rematch, overcoming six turnovers.
“Despite giving the ball away, we still played well enough to win,” said Washington coach Karl Finley. “[Turnovers] won’t be a problem on Thursday. Every time we did fumble it was trying to extend the play, trying to get 6 inches or a foot more, instead of taking what you get and securing the ball.”
Washington has a drought of its own, as the Eagles haven’t won on Turkey Day since 2003, including the past three seasons under Finley. The Eagles have made the postseason in all three years, including a regular-season championship in 2009.
“We never really talk about winning games,” Finley said. “Just if you do things right, good things will happen. But it’s going to be huge if we seal the deal. The seniors have experienced everything that I have. Being here for four years, this is a special kind of moment for those guys.”
The two teams may be heading into the game at different paces and they also contrast with two entirely different offensive schemes.
The Bucs run a spread offense that is unique to the AAA, while Washington employs a run-heavy attack that City programs have thrived on for decades.
Carvajal, in his second year with Balboa, has taken his lumps for employing such an unorthodox attack, and appears to take it personally, expressing a desire to prove the spread can work in the AAA.
“There’s always going to be doubters, but we have had that belief all season,” Carvajal said. “People have criticized us the whole year, but now we’re in a position to win a championship.”
The Balboa attack is dictated by senior quarterback Kerati Apilakvanichakit, who is effective on the ground and through the air. Just like Washington, turnovers have been a constant obstacle for Balboa, but the Bucs only lost one fumble against Mission last week.
“[Limiting turnovers] has just been the playoff experience. We’ve stepped up in the bright lights,” Apilakvanichakit said. “When we faced Washington the first time, we were off point on offense, really looking ahead.”
Apilakvanichakit leads the offense, but senior running back Greg Warren has provided much of the punch for the Bucs. Warren has run for 1,512 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season.
On the other side of the field resides another dynamic running back in Washington’s Jeremy Jetton, who not only leads the Eagles’ rushing attack, but also leads the team in touchdowns, interceptions, punt returns and kickoff returns. Finley admitted that the only plays Jetton doesn’t participate in is when the Eagles are punting.
“We have a saying, ‘One mind, one heartbeat’,” Jetton said. “I just do as much as I can on the field for my team. My contribution helps a lot, whether I’m running, blocking or playing defense, but at the end of the day, we play for each other.”
The teams and coaches may have contrasting styles, but in the end, the two programs are after the same thing, an elusive Turkey Day title.
“It would be a great thing [for our program],” Carvajal said. “It would prove to our kids that if you stay the course, it’s not always going to be perfect, but the group that overcomes it all is going to be most successful.”