Photo by Marta Franco

The Mission High School Bears made history Thanksgiving morning, triumphing over the Washington High Eagles in a remarkable 12-7 victory to claim their first San Francisco Academic Athletic Association championship in 57 years.

“I’m just so happy,” said head coach Joe Albano. “I worked at this school for 11 years, and now we’re in the history books.”

The Bears entered the game underdogs to the undefeated Eagles, a team that took the Turkey Day championship last year and delivered the Bears their only league loss in a 28-7 tromping earlier this year.

Thanksgiving’s low-scoring championship game took place against a backdrop of overcast skies, intermittent rain and a mud-soaked field. Mission parents, staff and students packed the Bears’ bleachers, some arriving two hours before the game to make posters and rally the players.

A large contingent of the ’77 Mission Bears starting lineup — which lost in the semifinals over three decades ago — attended, ready to cheer the Bears on their journey to redemption.

“Word got out who’s showing up,” said John Flaaten, ’77 quarterback, “we got all the old guard up here to watch them play.”

The first quarter offered a sloppy start. Five fumbles between the two teams in the first 15 minutes demonstrated the damage that a wet ball and cold hands can do.

“Don’t do these trick plays in the rain,” screamed a ’77er from the bleachers. Another directed a shout at coach Albano: “Don’t make me come out of retirement now.”

The ’77ers spirit didn’t help — at least at first.  At the end of the first quarter, on a Bear punt to the Eagles’ one-yard line, Jamie McHenry ran the ball back 99 yards to put the Bears in the hole 0-7.

“They gotta pick up the passing game a bit, and mix up the running game,” said Maurice Porter, running back Antoine Porter’s uncle.

“The key to winning is offense,” said Orlando Green, a ’77 Bear utility player. “They need to start passing.”

And soon the Bears did. With one minute left in the first half, quarterback Davon Hargraves lobbed a 30-yard pass to a waiting Demitrius Thibeaux in the end zone. The Bears missed the extra point attempt, but were back in the game, with 6-7 the score going into the second half.

After halftime the sun prevailed, and so did coach Albano’s defense.

The Bears held the Eagles scoreless through the third quarter. Then, with six minutes left in the game, the Bears’ moment came with a remarkable double reverse to Antoine Porter that took the Eagles by surprise and put the Bears ahead 12-7.

“Coach, we like you again,” yelled a ’77er.

The Bears attempted a two-point-conversion to keep the Eagles in check by a touchdown, to no avail. However, a five-point lead with less than six minutes left kept the ’77ers silent, their tongues tied in anticipation.

“Defense, defense,” the Bears’ bleachers chanted into the closing minutes. As the clock inched closer to zero, the crowd was visibly on edge.

The Bears held the Eagles back. As the clock hit zero, the Bears’ line exploded. So did the bleachers.

“Man, I think I just lost 10 pounds,” said a hefty ’77er.

“It’s been a long time,” said Sergio Juarez, an offensive guard from ’79. “We waited all these years.”

“Feels good for them to accomplish what we didn’t get to accomplish,” added ’77 quarterback Flaaten.

And on the field — jubilation.

“I feel great,” said running back Antoine Porter.

What’s next?

“College,” said Algeron Marlbrough, a senior who had just finished his last game. But first, “I’m gonna go home, sit back and eat turkey.”

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