Athletics The Many Leagues of SI

SI’s membership in the various athletic leagues can be a bit confusing. In 1909, SI joined the Catholic Athletic League, and in 1910, the school joined the city’s Academic Athletic League (known from 1914 as the San Francisco Athletic League), which was run by student managers. When the Academic Athletic Association formed in 1926, putting the power in the hands of high school principals, SI joined it, though reluctantly because this league prohibited schools from competing against non-AAA teams in playoff games. SI, in 1926, had won the state basketball championship, and students were eager for a chance to recapture the crown. But because all other city schools joined the AAA, SI and Lowell had no choice but to go along. SI left the AAA in 1966, in part because only San Francisco residents could compete in that league, leading SI to join the West Catholic Athletic League.


Aside from that first football game against Sacred Heart, the earliest records of SI’s athletic teams come from the Ignatian of 1910, the first student publication. It reported, simply, that “when the High School joined the AAL last year, it was so late in the season that we were able to enter only a tennis team in the tournament at Stanford. The members were the Fotrell brothers, who captured the championship of the California High Schools in both singles and doubles. Thus our prep school’s career in the AAL was ushered in most auspiciously.”


An article in the 1910 Ignatian noted that high school basketball “is practically a new game with us and this year marked the advent of a High School team. We entertained very little hope of developing a championship team — not that the players were wanting in quickness of mind and strength of body, two elements of vital necessity to play the game with any degree of success, but because they lacked the experience which tells in tight places. And yet their record is an enviable one. They finished third in the championship race, yielding only to Cogswell and Wilmerding…. The team consisted of Captain Evans, McGrath, Keating, Noonan, Flood, Foster, Naylor, W. Fotrell and Harrigan.” In 1911, SI’s basketball team placed third in the city’s league, second in 1916 and first in 1917, coached by W. Thorpe. In 1919, the team had its first star in Jeff Gaffney (who also excelled in baseball), and in 1921, SI beat every other school in the San Francisco Athletic League championship tournament. The basketball program divided students into weight classes, which was the practice of the day, with 100s, 110s, 120s, 130s, and 145s. (In effect, the 145s represented the varsity players, though the weight classifications changed over the years, with the varsity later called the Unlimited. The numbers are a little misleading, as coaches placed students into categories based on a convoluted matrix of height, weight, age and ability.)15


SI had an on-again, off-again relationship with football (which was played as rugby until the school adopted “American football” in 1919). SI fielded teams in 1908 and 1909, disbanded football in 1910, and reinstated it in 1911 on both the high school and college levels. The December 1911 Ignatian reported the following: “Considering the number of novices who formed the nucleus of the team, their work was gratifying. Their first game was with San Rafael Union High School on September 14. At the end of the game, we were the victors {25–0]. Being the first game of the season, it was devoid of any sensational plays, which generally thrill a spectator at a rugby game. The team on the whole played well, and every man had a hand in scoring.”

Football continued through 1916, but was discontinued in 1917 and 1918 in order to provide more athletes for the baseball and basketball teams. It made a brief appearance again in 1919, and again in 1922 before becoming firmly established in 1924 under coach Jimmy Needles (a football star from Santa Clara) and later, his brother Frank Needles.


We know that baseball began at SI in 1907, one year after the earthquake, thanks to a picture found in the archives of the California Province. The next earliest reference to SI’s high school baseball team came in the Easter edition of the 1913Ignatian, which noted that “the doughty little warriors from the high school overcame the onslaught of Poly’s host in their first contest and won rather easily [13–6]. A bombardment of John O’Connor’s benders in the first inning netted Poly five runs and O’Connor a seat on the bench. Ted Pohlman took up the burden and held Poly safe for the rest of the game.” That season, SI finished with 11 wins and four losses. One of those losses, against Oakland High, spurred Warren Brown to write the following in the Easter edition of the 1913 Ignatian. “Kids to the right of ‘em, trees to the left of ’em, fences in front of ’em, no wonder they blundered. Imagine a baseball game staged on the Scotch bowling green in Golden Gate Park. Picture three primary schools holding picnics on first, second and third bases, and, gentle reader, you have it — Mosswood Park, Oakland, the scene of our second defeat. Words fail to describe the game.” Ten years later, in 1923, SI fielded an indoor baseball team briefly.16

Track and Field
By Dan Lang ’86, Varsity Track and Field Coach

From the earliest days at SI, the track team has enjoyed success thanks to the arduous and anonymous work of dedicated students and coaches. The earliest mention of track competition is in the 1910 Ignatian, which refers to the college class of 1913 (then freshmen) that competed on the third annual President’s Day. The author notes that “a beautiful and costly trophy offered by Rev. Father Sasia, SJ, [went] to the individual scoring the greatest number of points in the winning class.” The freshmen of 1910 so dominated the interclass competition that one of their own, David Barry, was moved to write The Victors; a sample reads:

For forty yards the big men ran
And to our joy our Captain, “Stan”
As swift and fleet as the northern wind,
Came first with Milt and Flood behind.

As was the case with most high school programs at the time, SI’s track program was organized, judged, scheduled and operated by students. The school also supported the program financially. The December 1911 Ignatian noted that “bleachers have been built to accommodate 2,000, thus making the total seating capacity 5,000. It is our intention to put in a cinder track outside the rugby field. We feel proud to assert that our stadium will be the very best in San Francisco.”

The earliest reference to an SI high school track team appeared in the 1912Ignatian, which noted that on January 12, 1912, the high school relay team “entered the Olympic Club Indoor Meet and came out victorious, winning the beautiful silver trophy offered for the relay race” against St. Mary’s, Lick, Palo Alto and Mission. Stars on that team included Captain McElearney, Chandler, Evans, O’Shea, H. Flood and Keating.

Just two weeks later the same group of Ignatians took the silver cup at the YMCA indoor meet and tasted victory for the third time at an invitational hosted by The Examiner. During the outdoor season (the teams competed in an indoor season in the winter and an outdoor season in the spring), the relay team of 1912 took fourth at the Stanford Interscholastic Meet, a gathering of the “finest athletic talent in the state.” (SI teams to this day compete at the Stanford meet, one of the most competitive in the nation.)

The sport continued to develop in popularity, and by 1917 editors of the Ignatianproclaimed, “We undoubtedly possess one of the most formidable track teams of the San Francisco high schools…. To encourage track, dual meets have been arranged with Lowell, Humbolt and many other schools for the early spring.”

Soon, student coaches would give way to some of the best adult coaches in SI’s long history, including world record holders and Olympians such as Emerson “Bud” Spenser and Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Gil Haskell.

Terry Ward ’63, who coached at SI in the 1970s — and the man whom many consider the Godfather of WCAL track and field — noted that in each of his 37 years coaching track and field, “I try to make the 150 athletes in my charge know that I care for them and want them to succeed. From the fastest runner to the slowest jogger, I live with each step they take.”

Julius Yap ’74, who coached in the 1980s and 1990s and influenced a new generation of athletes and coaches, echoed that sentiment. “Coach Ward and Coach Haskell also provided the model for me to follow as I returned to teach and coach here at SI. I have had some success here during my 25 years at the prep, and I owe much of that to my two coaches at SI. They taught me the value of hard work. The most important value an SI coach should honor — and this is the top priority of an SI coach — is to care for the student as a person first and an athlete second.”

Former head coaches Charles Taylor ’88, Tom Fendyan ’83 and head coaches Martin Logue ’92 and Dan Lang ’86 were all athletes under Yap, and each has encouraged his athletes to live out those ideals. In doing so, they practice the Ignatian philosophy of cura personalis — care for the whole person.

That philosophy has created a successful program, with the men’s team taking 14 varsity league championships and the 1991 Central Coast Section (CCS) title. The women’s team won 10 league victories in a row and CCS titles in 1997 and 1998.

Modern track champions include Chris DeMartini ’94 for shot put, the only individual state champion in SI history; Olympian Tom McGuirk, who competed in the 400-meter hurdles in Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000; and Jenna Grimaldi ’01, who became the number-one-ranked female high jumper in the nation in her senior year.

If you walk onto the SI track in spring to watch the boys and girls compete, you will find some stark contrasts with the SI track team of 1910. But you will find one thing in common: Much of the work is still done by students. They measure the distance for discus and shot put. They serve as timers for the sprints. They set up and take down hurdles. And they cheer on modern-day Wildcat athletes who, like their counterparts in the Olympics, strive towards their very best.