Let’s flash back to Sept. 21. The Berkeley High football team had just lost their third straight game to open the season, and had been outscored 121-12 in the three losses. If anyone had suggested that the ’Jackets would be playing for the ACCAL championship to end the season, they would have been laughed out of the stadium.
But that’s exactly what has happened. Berkeley rebounded from their miserable start to win their next five games, only one of which has been close, and have run off four league wins with no losses. Their plethora of running backs have simply dominated, with five of them scoring at least three touchdowns apiece, and newcomer Raymond Pinkston has solidified the passing game from the quarterback position. The defense finally stopped giving up big plays, racking up two shutouts and giving up just 28 points in the last four games.
But just as they get to the biggest test of their ACCAL season, a new obstacle has arisen: grades. The first round of grades was released this week, and a large group of players have eligibility problems. Although the Berkeley coaching staff is prohibited from commenting on players’ grades, as many as 13 players could be ineligible for tonight’s game, including up to seven starters. At least four of those starters are spending today working on getting grade changes into the computer system to get themselves in uniform.
“We just have to live with it,” wide receiver Lee Franklin said. “I’m kind of disappointed in some guys who didn’t pick up their books, but we can’t dwell on it.”
Some Berkeley players think the school’s administration is being overly harsh in their enforcement of grades. Several players turned in late homework after the grades were issued, and teachers were willing to improve their grades based on the new work. But unless the grades are entered into the computer system today, the administration considers them invalid for the game.
“There’s so much negativity around here, coming from the administration, other students, just about everybody, it feels like everyone’s against us,” linebacker Akeem Brown said. “But we know what we have to do.”
But the ’Jackets could be seriously handicapped in a game against an opponent that is heavily favored. Pinole Valley is undefeated in league play, just like the ’Jackets, and is favored coming into today’s game. The Spartans use a power running game to wear down opponents, as tailback DeAndre McFarland has rushed for 1,597 yards and 23 TDs behind a line that features three players who weigh in at more than 300 pounds.
“McFarland is an amazing running back, and he’s torched some very good teams this year,” Berkeley head coach Matt Bissell said. “Their offensive line are just beaters. They just punish people.”
The key to the game could be Berkeley defensive tackle Jamal Lucas-Johnson. The 300-pound junior has been out for four games with an ankle injury, and it’s not clear whether he will be able to play. If he can’t, it could be a long game for a Berkeley defensive line that can’t match Pinole Valley’s brawn. In addition, there could be as many as five new starters on defense due to eligibility problems.
“We’re going to have a bunch of people playing that haven’t played that much, so I’m a little nervous,” senior Nick Schooler said. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to sleep tonight.”
Berkeley’s seniors insist they knew they league title would come down to the final game. The ’Jackets and Spartans ended last year in a three-way tie for the championship with El Cerrito, and Berkeley would love to take the title outright this season.
“It’s just like a playoff atmosphere,” Franklin said. “We didn’t get it done last year, so we’ve got to leave everything on the field.”