By Jeremy Balan
The annual Turkey Day championship undoubtedly features the two best teams in the Academic Athletic Association and it also presents a clash of history.
The game between Washington High School and Mission on Thursday at Kezar Stadium will feature the team with the longest championship drought and last year’s champion.
Washington rolled to the championship last year with a 36-6 win over Balboa, while Mission hasn’t won a Turkey Day title since 1954 and hasn’t advanced to the holiday championship game since 1977.
“Obviously it’s a big game, but the biggest thing is we’re going to get to play those guys again,” said Mission head coach Joe Albano, referencing the Bears’ only AAA loss to Washington. “We can’t let the setting overwhelm us.”
The Bears’ reaction to the stage of the Thanksgiving tradition could be a deciding factor, considering Washington’s experience playing in the championship game three of the last four years.
“The excitement level is going to be a lot grander,” said Washington head coach Karl Finley. “We’ve been there. We know you have to prepare and play. It doesn’t matter how you get there and they only remember the team that wins. There’s going to be a lot of emotion and a lot on the [Mission] side. We’re going to have to play very well to compete.”
Both teams didn’t show the dominant form they displayed in the AAA regular season in the semifinals last week, with Washington trailing Lincoln at the half before rallying for a 21-10 win and Mission holding off a game Lowell squad in a 42-24 win at rainy Kezar. Still, both coaches were encouraged that their teams were able to meet challenges in the first round.
“The best thing about that Lowell game is that instead of cracking, they got stronger and came together as a team.” Albano said. “That’s the kind of game we need to play. If we’re down 14-0, the game is not over.”
As much as the stage and a possible rain storm may factor into the result, the game will likely be determined by the AAA’s best offense in Washington (9-2) and the league’s best defense, in Mission (8-3).
The Eagles have scored a AAA-high 350 points on the year, while Mission has limited opponents to just 100 points in 11 games.
Up until Washington scored four touchdowns in a 28-7 win over the Bears on Oct. 28, Mission had not allowed an offensive touchdown in AAA play.
“We kept them on their toes last time,” Finley said. “We went outside a little bit, away from those big guys, but we don’t mind playing against big guys.”
The Washington running back tandem of seniors Lajarie Mabrey and Jamie McHenry ran for 305 yards against the Bears in the regular-season meeting and will be the main focus for Albano and Mission. The Eagles defense also locked down the multiple big-play threats Mission boasts, including quarterback Davon Hargraves and running back Antoine Porter.
“Defensively, we shut down Mission pretty good last time, but that doesn’t mean anything now,” Finley said. “We want the same game, but we know we’re not going to get it.”
Hargraves sat out the first quarter in the regular-season meeting for violating team rules and the Mission offense never got going. Against Lowell in the semifinal, however, Hargraves may have had his best game of the season, rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for 90 yards and another score.
“He just helps us open everything up,” Albano said. “In the first game, he was out of sync, and when we’re not passing, they challenged us with blitzes.”
With wet conditions, no result is out of the question, but Mission is embracing the role of the underdog.
“I always love the underdog and Washington is undefeated [in AAA play],” Albano said. “I’m also a New York Giants fan and 2008 is fresh in my mind.”
Central Coast Section Division III Playoffs
(5) Sacred Heart Cathedral vs. (1) Christopher (Gilroy) @ Gilroy HS, 7 p.m.
The Irish (6-5) won in convincing fashion on the road in the first round against fourth-seeded Monterey last week, but will run into another unknown in the top-seeded Cougars (10-1).
Christopher validated that top seed last week, however, with a 55-0 win over eighth-seeded Del Mar (7-4). The Cougars only gained 293 yards of total offense against Del Mar, but forced six turnovers and two went for defensive touchdowns.
The Irish have a standout, turnover-heavy defense of their own, but will turn to standout Valentino Miles for offensive production. Miles’ big runs in the second half against Monterey allowed the Irish to pull away last week.
(7) St. Ignatius @ (3) Valley Christian (San Jose), 7 p.m.
While the Irish get an unknown in the second round, the Wildcats (4-6-1) will get an opponent they are all too familiar with.
St. Ignatius fell to the Warriors (6-5) 24-21 in the regular season, but the game was in San Francisco and Valley Christian standout running back Byron Marshall was still not entirely healthy.
The Oregon-bound wingback ran for 73 yards against the Wildcats on Oct. 15, but showed just how much damage he can do against Sacred Heart two weeks later when he ran for 191 yards and three touchdowns on just 11 carries.
Still, the Wildcats should be entering the game with a ton of momentum after stunning second-seeded Aptos last week after trailing 24-7 with seconds remaining in the third quarter. Valley Christian cruised to a 35-21 win over sixth-seeded Burlingame last week, removing most of their starters after taking a 28-6 halftime lead.
St. Ignatius tied Valley Christian in 2007, but haven’t beaten the Warriors since 2006.