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San Francisco Section championship game preview: The turkey tastes better at Kezar

Coaching in the city's public league presents unique challenges but it also offers a true San Francisco treat

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been more than a victory tour, Balboa football coach Fred Velasquez said. It’s way more than fanfare. It’s really about acknowledgement.

Coaching high school sports is of course a glamor-less job. Little pay. Countless hours. All who sign up for it in California know the gig.

But coaching public school city sports presents a whole set of challenges. “We put in a lot of time and effort in the San Francisco public leagues,” Velasquez said. “Probably far more than regular coaches in the suburbs. Don’t get me wrong, it’s difficult everywhere. But we deal with a lot of stuff. … We’re trying to get these kids to stay out of trouble, to get them playing sports in the city so they can eventually get out of the city.”

It’s wearing. You can see it their bloodshot eyes and hear it in their cracked, raw voices. High school football football coaches in the San Francisco Section are drained by the time postseason rolls around.

But for one shining moment — whether in the biting cold or drizzly conditions — there is a breath of fresh foggy air: The Turkey Day Game, a San Francisco treat. 

It's also known as the San Francisco Section championship game and it's played  every Thanksgiving morning at Kezar Stadium.

WHAT: 98th Turkey Day Game/SFS championship

WHEN: 11 a.m. Thursday
WHERE: Kezar Stadium,
TEAMS: Lincoln (8-3) vs. Balboa (6-5)
SECTION CHAMPIONSHIPS: Lincoln 12 (Last in 2019), Balboa 10 (2021)
KEY PLAYERS: Lincoln — RB-SS Ricky Underwood, RB-CB Jamelle Newman, TE-LB Vincent Huang. Balboa — RB-SS Dontae Allen-Wilson, QB-SS Edwin Maiava, OL-DL Nifae Tinoifili Shul-Cassidy
POINTS FOR (ALLOWED): Lincoln 373 (180), Balboa 200 (237)
SERIES HISTORY (SINCE 2004): Lincoln leads 21-4
SBL PREDICTED SCORE: Lincoln 21, Balboa 17
CALPREPS COMPUTER: Lincoln 21, Balboa 10

Velasquez and his Buccaneers have earned a trip to The City’s big dance for the third straight year and for the third time they will face arch-rival and the league's standard, Lincoln.

Last year, the Bucs and Velasquez finally got over the hump, with a thorough 21-0 victory, the school’s first section championship and Turkey Day Game win since 1984.

A school rich in football tradition — remember NFL names like Wilson Faumuina, Al Burleson and Calvin Jones — Balboa had dominated the city in the 50s and 60s and had nine section titles. 

The Bucs simply had hit a dry spell and Velasquez, a Balboa grad, resurrected the program that hit close to bottom with a winless 2017 campaign. He took over the following season. 

Not only did he lead them to a coveted section crown last year, but they went on to capture a state 7-A title with a resounding 43-0 win over Taft-Woodland Hills.

The Buccaneers celebrate their first state title. Photo: Sam Stringer

The Buccaneers celebrate their first state title. Photo: Sam Stringer

A BLESSING

That’s when the celebrations, recognition and pats on the back really began. Everywhere Velasquez went. Grocery stores. Sporting events. Shopping malls.

“It’s been such a blessing,” he said. “It’s not why we do it, but to get those pats on the back, it feels good.”

Phil Ferrigno knows all about it.

He’s in his 20th season as head coach at Lincoln and he’s built something of a dynasty in the AAA. 

His cohesive coaching staff includes Kevin Doherty, who is a weight training master. His brothers are Folsom head football coach Paul and Prolific Prep basketball co-founder and director of operations Philippe. 

Kevin Doherty has taught and coached weightlifting at every level, including the Olympics, and is the foundation of Lincoln’s core strength. It’s reflected in the Mustangs’ dominating line play and potent ground games.

“If you want to run the ball you come to Lincoln,” Ferrigno said with a laugh. “If you’re a good halfback or an option quarterback, then come to Lincoln.”

It’s not like Ferrigno doesn’t know how to or even dislikes the pass. His previous coaching stints were filled with high volume aerial attacks.

But utilizing a tough, interior running game from tough city kids with inner resolve and edge makes sense. It fits. And it works.

Thursday will be the 14th year Ferrigno and his Mustangs have reached the pinnacle game on Thanksgiving at the landmark stadium that once hosted the 49ers. 

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His team’s have won eight times, including 2018 and 2019 then they followed up with state crowns. Just like Galileo did in 2017, giving the much maligned AAA four consecutive state titles.

SOFT HEART, IRON FIST

“There’s nothing else like it,” Ferrigno said of playing on Thanksgiving. “The turkey tastes a little better. The gravy too.”

And that’s win or lose, Ferrigno said.

His team is a solid favorite to win Thursday based on a perfect league season at 5-0 and a six-game win streak, including a 21-7 triumph over Balboa 21-7 on Oct. 1.

Ferrigno keeps it real with the kids, doesn’t play favorites and loves with a soft heart an iron fist.

His kids always seem to respond.

This season from the get-go.

His star player from 2021, All-Metro running back and strong safety Ricky Underwood, broke his collarbone in the first half of the team’s season-opener with Jefferson-Daly City.

Ricky Underwood (2) was 1,000-yard rusher for Lincoln in 2021. Photo: Eric Taylor

Ricky Underwood (2) was 1,000-yard rusher for Lincoln in 2021. Photo: Eric Taylor

The speedy and physical 5-foot-11, 180 senior already had 12 carries for 99 yards and three touchdowns when Ferrigno had to replace the one kid on the team that appeared irreplaceable.

Enter (trumpets blaring) Jamelle Newman, hands on hip, cape whisking behind his less-than-imposing frame.

“He’s 5-foot-5, 145-150 pounds soaking wet,” Ferrigno said. “But he’s strong as an ox. Quick. A natural football player.”

He largely saved the day for the Mustangs (8-3), by rushing for 941 yards (6.6 per carry) and 13 touchdowns. He’s also recorded 36 tackles as a starting cornerback, intercepted a pass, returned 20 kicks and punts, adding two more special teams’ touchdowns.

“Jamelle stepped right in and we barely missed a beat,” Ferrigno said. “He’s got a complete game. He’s everywhere. He’s fast and quick. He can tackle. He’s definitely been our MVP.”

HOME RUN HITTERS

Games with Balboa are typically tough, low-scoring and won in the trenches. Although Velasquez recognizes that big-play prowess also often decides games with Lincoln.

Now that Underwood is back — he had 109 yards rushing on 13 carries and two touchdowns in Lincoln’s 27-6 first-round playoff win last week against Lowell — Balboa has an even bigger challenge than the earlier game with Lincoln.

The Buccaneers did a good job containing Newman (23 carries, 79 yards, one touchdown) in that game.

“Now they have two home run hitters instead of one,” Velasquez said. “We’ll have to stop their run and play-action game. Then we’ll be in the fight.”

Jamelle Newman (4) does it all for the Mustangs and is the 2022 MVP thus far. Photo: Eric Taylor

Jamelle Newman (4) does it all for the Mustangs and is the 2022 MVP thus far. Photo: Eric Taylor

Ferrigno anticipates a physical one. If Balboa can avoid the turnover bug, as it did last week in a 17-14 semifinal win at Washington, Lincoln will be faced with its biggest challenge since suffering a three-game nonleague losing streak. They’ve won six straight since.

Balboa turned around a 22-0 regular-season loss to Washington thanks to big efforts from Dontae All-Wilson (25 carries, 125 yards, one TD), Nick Wong (41-yard TD run), two-way linemen Nifae Tinofili Shul-Cassidy (two sacks) and kicker Eric Solozano, whose 32-yard field goal was the difference.

“Fred does a great job and I expect (Balboa) is going to play great,” Ferrigno said. “I hope we do too and can put on a great show for the city.” 

Email SBLive California senior editor Mitch Stephens: Mitch@scorebooklive.com Follow on Twitter: @mitchbooklive