By Jeremy Balan
No one is shocked to see defending champion Washington High School entering the annual Bell Game rivalry undefeated in Academic Athletic Association play.
Lincoln, however, is a different story.
The Mustangs (2-3, 2-0) have been the biggest surprise of the early AAA season, upsetting 2010 finalist Balboa and 2009 champion Galileo after a winless season last year.
Now the winner of the 66th meeting of the Bell Game on Friday afternoon at Washington will have a playoff spot all but locked up and a regular-season title within reach.
“We’re playing hard, but we still have some things to clean up to be considered a good team,” said Lincoln head coach Phil Ferrigno. “That’s a process that is going to take some more games.”
Lincoln has leaned on the strength of its defense, limiting Balboa’s and Galileo’s spread offenses, known for putting up touchdowns, to just six points apiece.
“They’re rallying to the ball and they’re doing everything they need to do,” Ferrigno said. “We still need to tackle better, though, and there’s still things that, as a coach, we want to see better.”
For Washington (3-2, 2-0), the offense has been leading the way with standout senior running backs Jamie McHenry and Lajarie Mabrey carrying the load through non-league play.
But with senior starting quarterback Aram Gevandian back under center, the Eagles are actually looking for more balance.
“We’re still a run-oriented team, but Aram really expands it all,” said Washington head coach Karl Finley. “It’s a luxury to have [such good running backs], but we’d love to be 50-50 [in run-pass ratio].”
Gevandian has played in the first two AAA games for the Eagles, but has been playing with a cast on his left arm. Ball security was an issue without Gevandian in non-league play, but the senior has done is part to limit those mistakes.
“He’s done a superb job of securing the ball and the snaps,” Finley said. “I have to give him a lot of credit for doing that as a one-handed quarterback.”
The Mustangs have also made some changes at the quarterback position, with sophomore Joshua Burnoski taking over for last season’s starter Derek Morell, a junior.
Ferrigno hasn’t asked Burnoski to put the ball in the air a ton (he’s 6-for-11 in two games with 68 yards and a touchdown), but he’s already been named co-captain, and ended a 15-game losing streak with the Balboa win.
“We have two good quarterbacks,” Ferrigno said. “So how [great] is that? Whatever happens, happens and we’ll see what happens.”
Whatever the circumstance, what Ferrigno calls the “biggest rivalry in the public schools” is almost always a close game and has been a springboard to league championships in the past.
“It’s a great thing,” Ferrigno said. “It’s like old-time football. We both have rallies, everybody comes. It’s just a great day for high school football.”
“There’s so much history in the AAA overall, but the trophy is so old and you can see all the winners from way back,” Finley added. “It’s just a cool tradition.”
Galileo vs. Lowell @ SOTA, 3 p.m.
It’s hard to say the third game of any league season is crucial, but with each at 1-1, this matchup could have significant playoff implications. Both teams have tough games ahead and a win for either here would provide a big advantage.
Balboa vs. Marshall @ SOTA, 3 p.m.
With both teams at 0-2, a loss here would all but eliminate either team from the AAA playoff race.
Balboa (1-4, 0-2) is still searching for answers on offense, while Marshall (1-4, 0-2) has been outscored 88-6 in its first two AAA games.
Burton vs. Mission @ Kezar Stadium, 3 p.m.
It’s hard to see the Pumas (0-3, 0-2) challenging here.
Burton, coming off a 45-0 drubbing to Lowell in which it played just 13 players, will now have to take on the Bears (3-2, 2-0), which haven’t allowed a point in AAA play and have only allowed 22 points in their five games.
Sacred Heart Cathedral @ St. Francis (Mountain View), 7:30 p.m.
The Irish (4-1, 1-1) haven’t beaten St. Francis (1-4, 0-2) since 2008, but don’t let the Lancers’ record fool you.
St. Francis has lost their four games by an average of just over seven points against teams with a combined record of 16-2-2.
Bellarmine (San Jose) @ Riordan, 1 p.m.
The Crusaders (1-4, 0-2), coming off a 35-7 blowout loss to Sacred Heart, will not get any sort of reprieve going against WCAL power Bellarmine (4-1, 2-0), which dismantled Valley Christian last week, 48-6.
Valley Christian (San Jose) @ St. Ignatius, 1 p.m.
The Wildcats (2-2-1, 0-1-1) could use a big win to keep Central Coast Section playoff hopes alive, but will have to improve on their run defense to stop Valley Christian’s (2-3, 1-1) powerful rushing attack featuring standout senior Byron Marshall.