Here is a somewhat shocking fact. There is only one Jewish high school in all of the United States that boasts a full 11-man tackle football team. Here is another fact: In their first season with an 11-man team, the San Diego Jewish Academy Lions are 6-2, and are heading to the playoffs this Saturday night.
I thought I’d ask Athletic Director Charlie Wund, Coach John Milisitz, and star quarterback Joseph Mizrachi about what it’s like to be on such a unique team.
MyJewishLearning: How long has the team been around?
Charlie Wund: The school itself is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The high school has been around for 10 or 11 years. The football team is only eight years old. This is actually the first year that we’ve moved to an 11-man football team. In the past, we’ve used an eight man team. We officially entered a league and a conference that has made us eligible for the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation) Playoffs, which we’re playing in this Saturday night.
Tell me a little about your school. How many students? What type of Jewish day school is it?
Joseph Mizrahi: We’re a pluralistic Jewish school. There aren’t a lot of kids here. There’s around 185 kids in the high school.
With only 185 kids in the school, how many people are on the football team?
Mizrachi: Our football team has about 25 kids. A lot of them are freshmen or rookies who have never played football before. We basically had to spend the entire year teaching them how to play.
Coach, what type of challenges have you had with this team, with a small team?
John Milisitz: I would say three quarters of my team didn’t know how to put on their pads the first time.
They remind me of the movie Little Giants.
Milisitz: Actually, our team is big. We have four guys that are 250+. And we have some really good athletes. We’re really fast. It was easy to teach them because of that. Football is different from other sports that, if you’re athletic, and your team has a good quarterback and running attack, it’s easy to pick up.
Joseph, I read that, during the game, you use Hebrew audibles to change the play at the line. Can you tell me more about that?
Mizrachi: Well, we don’t want anyone to understand our plays. If we called the plays in English, the other team could easily hear. But what other school teaches Hebrew? We call the counts and blocking assignments in Hebrew too. It’s a major advantage for us.
Whose it was it idea to use Hebrew?
Milisitz: It was actually Joseph’s. We decided to call plays in Hebrew. But some of the guys don’t speak Hebrew as well. So we stopped that, but we started the snap counts, blocking schemes, etc. It won’t be full Hebrew, but enough to call the plays. Even I, and I’m not Jewish, have picked up a lot.
Some people may not know, but many high school football games are played on Friday night. Since your team doesn’t play on Shabbat, has the scheduling changes forced you to play a shorter season?
Wund: No. We played the full seven conference game schedule and one pre-season game before that. We didn’t play as many non-conference games. One reason is that, in the first week of November, we have school trips, so each grade goes to a different part of the country. So we couldn’t play a game then. Last year, we couldn’t play a full schedule because of all the Jewish holidays. Having them fall on Thursdays meant we couldn’t play a lot of games.
Has the conference been accommodating?
Wund: Absolutely. We are the only Jewish school in San Diego with a sports program. But there is a Seventh Day Adventists school in the area, so they’ve faced many of the same issues that we have. For example, our volleyball team made it to the Div. 5 finals, and we had to switch the location and the time. This year, they got wind that they were going to be good again. So they switched the time in advance.
How many of players on the team are Shomer Shabbat?
Mizrachi: I think we have three Shomer Shabbat players. We have a couple of players who pray Orthodox-style but not that many of us are very observant.
Do you think teams take you less seriously because you’re Jewish?
Milisitz: I said this in pre-season. Everyone looks at the calendar and sees us and predicts a win. But we started the year 4-0. I think we won our first game, something like 67-0. I think three of our first four games were shutouts. Our defense is smothering.
Has anyone been scouted?
Milisitz: Well, our long snapper could play anywhere because he’s so good at it. I think he is ranked Top 10 in the country. And he’s a big kid. Joseph could play in college too if he chooses to. One of our lineman, a Junior, is second in the state in sacks, with 19 or something. Most of our players are looking at good colleges for academics though. Our team GPA is between 3.7-3.8.
In the upcoming weeks, I’ll try to give some updates on how the Lions do in the playoffs. Good luck guys!
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.