When Mission High School head football coach Joe Albano talks numbers, he’s not talking about points, yards or stats. He’s talking attendance, and it’s not fans he’s worried about. He wonders whether he has enough men to put on the field.
Last year, the head coach failed to get enough players, often had to forfeit games and finally had to forfeit the varsity football team’s season. Albano, who replaces the fired coach, is tasked with rebuilding the program from a dead stop. He’s starting by keeping an eye on the roster.
“I’m glad we at least have a team this year, and the numbers are great, so hopefully we can keep going,” said Albano, who has coached the Bears for nine years.
In its season opener against a city team, Mission plays at Lowell High School, 3 p.m. today.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game,” said assistant coach Alex Ware. So far the team is 0-3 against out-of-town teams.
Mission High is one of the smallest public schools in the district, numbering around 850 students, so size alone diminishes the pool of potential football players. In comparison, Lowell has a student body of more than 2,600 — more than three times as many students as Mission.
Coach Albano has proven he can work well with a minimum number of players. His 2009 junior varsity team went undefeated (6-0-1) and clinched the city championship with just 25 players. This year, many of his players have moved up into the varsity ranks, where he has 24 players. He needs a minimum of 18, according to the California Interscholastic Federation bylaws.
At the start of this season, Ware said, only 19 players had signed up for varsity.
An added plus this year is that the junior varsity has already swelled to more than 35 players. Albano is hoping to grow the younger players and keep them in the program as they reach varsity level.
The challenge of securing and maintaining the varsity team’s numbers is twofold, Ware said: first getting the players and then “making sure the guys we do have show up to practice, learn the plays and all that.”
Meanwhile, Coach Albano has been filling out his staff, including the addition of Ware, who played at Dartmouth College and punted his way into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2003. He coached at George Washington High School last season.
The Mission team may not be huge, Ware said, but it has a lot of potential. “We have guys who are some really good athletes, some really good football players.”
Albano hopes the Bears will qualify in the city playoffs. “My goal is to show this city and this school that we can have a strong team. Definitely just to finish and finish strong.”
Bears running back and outside lineman Davonta Gaines, now a senior, said that last season’s cancellation robbed him of a year on varsity, but he hopes to make up for lost time.
“I’m pretty excited about the season…. It’s really my first year in varsity and I want to take it all the way through my senior year.”
Gaines acknowledged he will sometimes miss practice, but for good reason: “I’ve been hitting the books.” Players must maintain a 2.0 grade point average to remain on the team.
He’s also been working out hard this summer, especially with a strength and conditioning program spearheaded by Coach Ross Steiner. “We’ve really seen the difference in the weight room and we’ve seen it really translate onto the field,” Steiner said.