Mission High Varsity gets ready for another play during practice.

Joe Albano pushes his sleeves up. It’s not just the unseasonably warm weather that’s making Mission High’s head football coach sweat. His team wants a championship year, and he knows how quickly one can vanish.

Following an undefeated season last year, the Mission Bears were eliminated in the first game of the playoffs and lost their chance to play in the city championship at Kezar Stadium, also known as the Turkey Bowl because it’s played on Thanksgiving Day.

“There’s a lot of returning players who saw what happened last year and they don’t want that to happen again,” Albano says. “So they are working harder to make sure.”

Since he became varsity’s head coach last year, Albano has turned Mission High’s record around from forfeiting an entire season in 2009 to making it to the semi-playoffs last season.

As Albano runs drills and conditioning exercises on a cramped field shared with the high school’s soccer team, he barks, “Get in shape! Triple A! Triple A!”

The team has had two early losses this season — against the Drake Pirates and the Menlo Knights — to put them at number 784 statewide.

“Our worst enemy is ourselves,” Albano says. “I have a lot of talented players, but they don’t go as hard as they should in practice.”

The players agree. “Last year we got too confident,” says Wilmer Abrego, a wide receiver and defensive back, whose right leg and foot are in a cast — the result of an injury during practice.

At least Albano isn’t as concerned about attendance numbers this season as he was in 2010. Even though Mission High lost half of its players to graduation, the roster has 28 dedicated team members. At the start of last season they only had 19.

Albano attributes the higher numbers to a strong junior varsity team that prepared players to move up.

Another major difference this year is that many of the players attended conditioning sessions over the summer. While strength conditioning coach Ross Steiner has been running summer boot camps for the past three summers, this time he saw numbers topping 20 in the weight room, compared to only 7 or 8 in previous years.

The extra work players invest into fitness and practice translates into a team that is more focused, says Darius Grays, captain and number 58. “Every day we need to stay on board. We can’t get too comfortable.”

Steiner agreed that to make it to the championships, players need to give 100 percent in practice, just like in the games.

For Albano, 110 percent is the standard. “We don’t blame anyone else for our mistakes,” he says.

Albano has noticed a few weaknesses in the team. “We’re a little sluggish starting in the game.” It has to be high intensity from the first second of play.

Looking forward, Albano is confident. “We have a great group of students dedicated to the team.” He’s also relieved that players are staying out of trouble and keeping their grades up.

As the turf starts to cool down after another challenging practice, Albano has the team huddle together. The players kneel on one knee and focus intently on their coach’s advice before their next game against Marshall on October 1. “We’re really good, but we can be a lot better.”

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Justine Quart knows everyone calls themselves a foodie in San Francisco, that's why she goes by gastro-ethnologist.

Before joining Mission Loc@l, Justine graduated from Brown University with a double major in Ethnic Studies and Visual Arts. In between gypsy stints abroad and working at a community health non-profit, she learned the delicate art of playing roller derby and making the perfect veggie burger. After working at the Discovery Channel Headquarters in Washington DC, Justine migrated to the warmer coasts of California to hone her reporting skills.

Aside from food, Justine likes to get nerdy about visual storytelling, experiential journalism, and investigative stories.

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