However it went—and it went poorly—SDJA football playoff was one for history books
By Joey Seymour
SAN DIEGO–A typical gorgeous San Diego fall afternoon, on the campus of the San Diego Jewish Academy, the Lions football team is going through a few final drills before their game the next evening.
At first glance, there is no indication that the game will be the Lions first playoff game in school history. As the boys joke around with one another, you would be inclined to believe that the match vs. the Tri-City Christian Eagles is just another date on their schedule.
However, this game is not only the Lions first playoff appearance, but it is also the first American high school playoff game in which the entire team consists of only Jewish players.
I asked Lions head coach John Milisitz about the importance of the game to the school, “I would say the least, I don’t think a 12 has ever beat a 5 seed, not only that aspect, being our first year and the only Jewish football team in the county making the playoffs, not only the school, but for the Jewish community.”
The Lions have outdone themselves in every way during their inaugural season. They ended the season in third place out of the twenty teams in Division V. Yet, there was a great deal of doubt when the season began. Milisitz: “We started the year with 14 guys, we were worried. Within about a week we generated enough buzz, we were up to almost 30. Now, we’re down to about 24. Useable guys, I think we’re at 14 or 15, when you take out the freshmen that aren’t ready to play or sophomores that just aren’t ready. Most guys go both ways, but it’s a challenge, because we don’t have subs.”
The Lions came out roaring in their first game vs. Crean Lutheran South, winning 67-0. Not bad for a team in which half had never played football before. According to Milisitz, “When we first started this year, I only had five guys that played football before, most of my guys didn’t know how to put their leg pads in or strap on their shoulder pads, we had to start from scratch teaching the guys how to play football.”
After that first game, the Lions subsequently won 5 and only lost 2. They outscored their opponents 214 – 77, while recording an impressive four shut outs. The team’s defense is their backbone. Linebacker and team captain, Ricky Pemensky consistently laid out opposing quarterbacks with 19.5 sacks in eight games, fourth best in the state. Of the excitement on campus at SDJA, Pemensky said, “I’ve been here since kindergarten; this is my twelfth year, sports teams have never been like this. It’s really cool to see how we’ve progressed over the year.” On the other side of the ball, senior Joseph Mizrachi leads the offense at quarterback. He ended the regular season with 1,141 passing yards, 715 rushing yards, and 20 touchdowns. Mizrachi will need to be prepared for a shoot out with the pass-intensive Eagles team, but he is not worried. “Yeah, for sure, we’ve got a passing team also, we don’t utilize it too much, because I have to run around a lot more. We’ve got the big play ability that every other team has. I have no doubt in my mind,” said Mizrachi.
The Lions have been getting a great deal of publicity going into this game, mainly due to the history attached to it. When asked if there normally would be the kind of media attention, that SDJA is getting, Athletic Director, Charlie Wund said, “I think probably not, to be honest with you. I mean as far as small schools go – and there’s a bunch of them in San Diego that have 11 man football teams, the third place team in the conference with a 6-2 record wouldn’t get a lot of attention. I don’t think this game would be as exciting or draw as much attention unless it was us.”
Wund went on to say, “Our kids take great pride in being Jewish, but as far as their athletic accomplishments go, they don’t associate that to being Jewish. It’s never really a factor for them. They are football players. They’re high school players.”
Coach Milisitz stated, “It’s not as much specific athletes, as much as it is a Jewish school competing in football which is a physical sport and you know, you have the stereotype that Jewish guys are small and non-athletic. We’re actually good, very physical; we shut out four teams this year. We’re audible and call plays in Hebrew. We do a lot of different things that people aren’t ready for and we run a lot of different offenses and they are able to grasp so much, because these guys are so smart.”
Before the practice session concluded, the team knelt down together and had a serious moment. Understanding that there is a spotlight on them, each team captain took a few moments to speak about the enormity of the game. The team is focused and ready to compete in their first Saturday night game of the season (since they do not play on Friday nights, all of their games took place on Thursday afternoons this season). Even though they are just another high school competing in a playoff, the eyes of history are bearing down on them and they are ready to win, not just for their school, for themselves, but for the Jewish community as well, which will surely be in force at the game on Saturday night at El Camino High School.
** Follow up: The Lions were overpowered and outplayed by a bigger, faster, stronger, Eagles squad on Saturday night in their 51-12 loss. A few bright spots included the play of freshman backup quarterback, Micah Weinstein, who entered the game in the second quarter for Mizrachi and the consistent, full speed play of Ricky Pemensky even when the Lions were down 47 – 0. Both players will return in 2010.
SDJA will now have to begin preparing for next season, but they certainly had a fantastic and historic run in 2009.
Joey Seymour is a sports historian and author of San Diego’s Finest Athletes: Five Exceptional Lives,” now available through Sunbelt Publications at www.sunbeltbooks.com Contact Joey Seymour at firstname.lastname@example.org
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