Just as Troy Franklin took over Menlo-Atherton’s dramatic 27-20 win at Eureka to advance to the CIF 3-AA Championship Game, sophomores will take center stage again in Saturday night when the Lincoln Hornets travel to the Peninsula to take on the Bears.
Just as the Bears had to travel all the way to Humboldt County for their regional title, Lincoln will be taking a long journey to this week’s game, which will be played in Redwood City at Sequoia HS, the closest location to Menlo-Atherton with a suitable capacity.
Franklin, the top sophomore receiver in all of California, accounted for three touchdowns and 180 total yards against Eureka, but he won’t be the lone member of the Class of 2021 to feature in the 3-AA Championship Game. Lincoln (11-4) has used two quarterbacks this year, but sophomore Raymond Spriggs Jr. has taken a more visible role as of late, completing 110 of 188 passes for 2,067 yards and 20 touchdowns. He completed just nine of his 17 passes in a SoCal championship win over Culver City, but those nine went for 202 yards as the Hornets raced to a 54-42 victory.
Another Lincoln sophomore, Kenneth Stevenson, gets some reps at running back, but he mainly stars at linebacker. He has a pair of 13-tackle games, including a 24-14 win over Madison. Madison was the lone league win for the Hornets, but the five teams in the Western League are outstanding, including Cathedral Catholic. The Hornets didn’t even get a chance to face the Dons, as they had been so depleted by injuries that they had to forfeit the October 19 contest.
For Lincoln to have gotten this far after dealing with a gauntlet of a schedule, major injuries and low roster numbers is quite the story, but it’s not like the Bears are without inspiration. Their biggest rallying point is the memory of Aisea “Bojack” Mataele, who passed away as a freshman from an unknown illness in 2016 shortly after M-A’s state championship loss to Paraclete. It’s been a goal for the Bears to get back to a title game and win one for their fallen brother, and they’ll now have the chance to do so.
While Franklin is Menlo-Atherton’s most prominently-featured sophomore, he’s not the lone youngster to make a serious impact. Skyler Thomas, brother of former St. Francis standout Darius Thomas, lines up along with Franklin in the secondary. His name was barely mentioned during last week’s game because the Loggers seldom targeted him, only throwing a few times in his direction. Additionally, in both the Bears’ CCS Open Division I Championship win and last week’s victory at Eureka, freshman Matt McLeod took over at quarterback in the second half, taking over due to injuries in a 33-28 win over Wilcox and coming in to shake things up and stop momentum against Eureka last week.
Unlike Lincoln, numbers haven’t been an issue for the Bears, even with all sorts of injuries, including Franklin missing the team’s second game after an allergic reaction to a bagel shortly before warmups. When at full strength, Menlo-Atherton (12-2) is nearly unstoppable. 6-foot-8, 335-pound lineman Joseph Paulo dwarfs almost every other player on the field, but his health has been spotty. When he’s been out there, the M-A offense is among the most prolific in the entire state. He was banged up during the second quarter of last week’s win, and the Bears scored just once after his injury.
For all of the young talent on the field, both teams do have some awfully impressive upperclassmen. Wide receiver Jamahd Monroe has 57 catches and 1,254 yards this season for the Hornets and is currently entertaining offers from Air Force and Utah State. Keyshawn Smith, a junior, isn’t too far behind in yardage, with 945 on 44 receptions, and he has one more touchdown than Monroe with 14. Don Chapman also gets his chances at receiver, but he’s more renowned as a defensive back, and he’ll be playing in the secondary at the next level. Saturday will be his final high school game, and the next time he takes the field, he’ll be a Washington State Cougar.
M-A’s top seniors would have to be linebacker Daniel Heimuli and defensive tackle Noa Ngalu. Ngalu is committed to Washington, and Heimuli, a four-star recruit, has narrowed his decision down to five schools, including Alabama and Washington. With four Pac-12 schools on his list, even if he doesn’t follow Ngalu to Seattle, there’s a good chance it’s not the last time the two close friends are on the field together.
Ngalu and Heimuli anchor a tremendous defense that has only allowed four opponents over 20 points. Of those four, one scored 21, one only broke 20 in overtime and one scored two late touchdowns to reach 28. The only team to cleanly push past 20 points against the Bears was Valor Christian, Colorado’s top team. The Eagles finished a perfect 14-0 season with a 5A state championship, winning Colorado’s highest division.
The trip to Colorado was the toughest game on M-A’s schedule. The Bears swept the PAL Bay Division, allowing only a touchdown in the final minutes in a 30-8 win over a Terra Nova team that put up at least 59 points three times on the season. Against rival Sacred Heart Prep, the Bears posted one of their three shutouts this year.
Heimuli and Ngalu aren’t the only reason for such excellence on defense. Uate Uhila has cemented his role as a great pass rusher and joins Heimuli, Ngalu and David Tafuna to give opposing quarterbacks nightmares. In the secondary, teams have to deal with Franklin, Thomas and Malik Johnson, who has no shortage of experience in championship games. Johnson transferred to M-A before his senior season after his family moved, and he brought a fantastic playoff pedigree with him. At St. Francis, Johnson was instrumental in the Lancers’ 2017 2-A State Championship, where he filled in for three-star defensive back Maurice Wilmer, who is now committed to Colorado. Johnson was also key in Friday’s win over Eureka.
“This is my time,” he said after the NorCal win. “I’m a senior, and I need to step up.”
He’s just one of the big personalities on a rambunctious Bears team that can sometimes get a bit too rowdy for their own good. They’ll need to curtail the penalties to beat Lincoln, as they committed seven for 80 yards last week against Eureka.
With all of the energy and noise on M-A’s roster, Franklin can largely stay under the radar, but when kickoff comes, all eyes will be on him and the other fantastic sophomores who will have a role in deciding the highest division to play a state title in Northern California this year.