By Jeremy Balan
A year ago, the Mission High School football team was highly motivated.
A loss to Balboa in the first round of the playoffs in 2010, after an undefeated league season, led to Mission’s first Academic Athletic Association football championship in 57 years last season.
With a key core of graduating seniors long gone, the attitude is significantly different at summer practice on 18th street.
Like the bloated, sleepy feeling after a big Thanksgiving dinner, the Bears are experiencing a Turkey Day hangover.
Summer practice participation hasn’t exactly been encouraging and Mission head coach Joe Albano has not been satisfied with the group’s dedication.
“There are the makings of a good team, but they need to decide they want to do it,” Albano said. “Last year’s team had strong seniors, who, after that playoff loss, used that momentum to carry them through their senior year. This group is a little bit different. They’re coming off their championship and I’m still trying to figure them out.”
The pieces missing, most glaringly at running back and linebacker (all of the starting linebackers from last season have graduated), haven’t been entirely replaced, but the Bears will still have one of the most talented groups in the AAA.
At quarterback and safety will be senior Antoine Porter, who scored the championship-clinching touchdown on Turkey Day last season as a wide receiver, and is a standout point guard for the basketball team.
Porter was a junior varsity quarterback, was Davon Hargraves’ backup last season and is also surrounded by a group that has played with him since his junior varsity days.
“This is the JV team I played with, so I know all of these kids,” Porter said. “The young ones, we’re just trying to get them up to speed.”
Maybe the quickest player in the league, Porter will be a threat to throw and run, and will also be aided by Riordan transfer Armani McFarland.
McFarland was the only Riordan player with more than 60 rushing yards last season (he led the team with 483 yards on 103 carries). Listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds on Riordan’s roster last season, he had breakout games against Mitty (156 yards and two touchdowns) and St. Ignatius (91 yards on 13 carries).
Now in a different league and with four returning starters on the Bears’ offensive line, McFarland feels he can have a standout year.
“I definitely believe I can be a star, if not the best player in this league,” McFarland said. “Coming from the [West Catholic Athletic League], it’s a tough league, and I did a lot and accomplished a lot. Coming into a league that isn’t as good, I feel I can dominate.”
There’s also that non-league game the Bears will play at Riordan on Sept. 15.
“I feel like I have something to prove,” McFarland said of the matchup with Riordan. “I want to beat them by a lot and show them that without me, they’re not good. I’m going to run till my wheels fall off.”
Both Porter and McFarland will rely on the offensive line, which Albano says is the team’s greatest strength, anchored by senior center Mane Fale, who will also be starting at defensive tackle.
“This is my family,” Fale said. “They’ve been through everything with me. They’re like my brothers and I’ve got to protect them.”
But even the players notice a difference from seasons past. They agree the feeling around the team has changed, but still feel confident about their on-the-field performance.
As momentous as the Bears’ championship season was last year, Mission would break an even longer streak if it were to repeat. Mission last won back-to-back AAA championships in 1929-1930.
“There’s a lot of question marks,” Albano said. “It would be great to talk about a repeat and all of that, but I have to be logical and I still have a lot of holes to fill.”
Albano is far from an eternal optimist, but whether he can fill those holes could be the difference, in his eyes, between a championship and missing the playoffs all together.
“We might go from first to last,” Albano said. “It seems like all the teams improved and right now, I can’t say that we’ve improved.”
2012 Schedule – AAA games in bold
Week 0: Fri. 8/31 – vs. Hercules @ Kezar Stadium, 7 p.m.
Week 1: Sat. 9/8 – vs. Menlo (Atherton) @ Kezar Stadium, 2 p.m.
Week 2: Sat. 9/15 – @ Riordan, 1 p.m.
Week 3: (Bye)
Week 4: Thu. 9/27 – @ Lowell, 3 p.m.
Week 5: Fri. 10/5 – @ Galileo, 3 p.m.
Week 6: Sat. 10/13 – vs. Marshall @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 7: (Bye)
Week 8: Sat. 10/27 – vs. Balboa @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 9: Sat. 11/3 – vs. Lincoln @ SOTA, 2 p.m.
Week 10: Fri. 11/9 – vs. Washington @ Kezar Stadium, 2 p.m.