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Three Morse High alumni make history with football championships

Three Morse High alumni make history with football championships
Posted on 11/29/2018

Interviewing Morse High Football Coaches

Coaches Charles James, Tracy McNair, and David Dunn

It's a historic year for high school football in San Diego - and for the three coaches leading their teams into regional title games this weekend.

For the first time in history, three San Diego Unified high schools will be vying for a shot at the CIF State Football Championship. Lincoln, Morse, and San Diego High have all advanced to the 2018 SoCal Regional Championship round, after each team earned the title of San Diego section champion in their respective divisions last week.

It's also a big year for the communities served by these schools, but perhaps none as much as the Skyline Hills neighborhood - home to Morse High School. In a true Southeast San Diego success story, all three of the champion teams are being led by Morse alumni.

“It's big for the community,” said San Diego Cavers head coach Charles James, who graduated from Morse in 1998. “All three teams going big at the same time, it's inspired a lot of adults here too.”

San Diego head coach Charles James
San Diego head coach Charles James - photo @topdawg619

Lincoln Hornets head coach David Dunn, a 1990 Morse graduate, recognized the significance of the moment after all three teams won their section championship games last week.

“We talked about it before, but you never really think it's going to happen. This is a historical moment, all these guys stepped up,” Dunn said in a SD Prep Insider interview. “It's just unbelievable, for all of us to make it and come out victorious.”

Lincoln head coach David Dunn

Lincoln head coach David Dunn - photo @topdawg619

Morse Tigers head coach Tracy McNair, also a ‘90 Morse grad, joked that his fellow alumni set high stakes with their teams' winning performances. “The pressure after [San Diego and Lincoln] won, I felt bad for myself coming in today, like ‘I HAVE to win for the community.”

Morse head coach Tracy McNair, and the 2018 Morse Tigers team

Morse head coach Tracy McNair, and the 2018 Morse Tigers team - photo @topdawg619

Morse and Lincoln will be playing on the road at Central Valley Christian and Culver City, respectively. Both games are scheduled for a 7:30pm kickoff Friday.

James, in his fourth year at San Diego High, is planning for a home game against Temecula's Linfield Christian. The game will start this Saturday at 6:00pm, and when it does, Balboa Stadium will be filled with fans in blue and white - a marked change from just a few years ago.

Success extends to the classroom

In 2014 and 2015, the Cavers posted only two wins combined. In the past two years, however, the team has gone 22-3, marking one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent times.

“When San Diego High gave me this opportunity, what I wanted was just to help out some kids in this community, give them something to be a part of, hopefully win a couple games,” James recalls. “But to be a part of this, it's nothing I imagined. It's really amazing.”

The improvement has shown off the field as well.

Thirteen students from this year's Cavers team have already received full scholarship offers from universities around the country, a SDHS record and more than most schools in San Diego County. It's perhaps these numbers that Coach James is most proud of: his team boasted an overall team GPA of 3.18, with several students earning above a 4.0.

Cavers standout Raiden Hunter, a 4.1 GPA student, has received a college offer from the U.S. Naval Academy and several others.

“It just feels great,” said Hunter, who plays positions on both offense and defense, on advancing to this year's regional championship. “The impact that we've had on the community as a whole, you can see it. Last year at the championship game I had people come up to me… just saying how proud they were.”

SDHS senior Raiden Hunter with family

SDHS senior Raiden Hunter with family - photo @topdawg619

James says stories like these are more common throughout south and southeast San Diego than people realize. “We're excited to be getting all this attention, but there are a lot of good things in these communities. There are so many of these kids that do great things and go on to good schools. Those things don't get publicized a lot.”

At Lincoln, where several graduating seniors have also received scholarship offers, the team provides the camaraderie and discipline that prove instrumental in setting students up for success after high school.

“All of these young men have a unique story. Football brings them together,” Dunn told SD Prep Insider. “It takes them away from other things that may be negative around them or in their lives.”

“Safety comes first”

While providing an invaluable benefit to many students, especially those in higher-poverty neighborhoods, the risk of physical injury has brought a national spotlight onto high school football itself.

In a sport where physical contact comes on every play, coaches are diligent in looking out for their players' safety. This includes educating players on proper tackling techniques to minimize the risk of injury, incorporating plenty of stretching and conditioning time, and, if necessary, even staying off the field altogether: earlier this season, Lincoln forfeited their October 19 game for safety reasons.

With only 18 players available - which would require several students to spend much more time on the field than normal - head coach Dunn made the call to forfeit the key game, despite his players' objections. “Safety always comes first,” Dunn told the San Diego Union-Tribune about his decision.

2018 Lincoln Hornets football team

2018 Lincoln Hornets football team - photo @topdawg619

That mantra is ingrained in football programs across the district. A leader in athletic safety, San Diego Unified is one of the only local districts to require that every football coach is NFHS Heads Up certified, a major accomplishment that has other school districts following suit. The Heads Up Certification trains San Diego Unified coaches to prevent and recognize concussion, dehydration, sudden cardiac arrest and other conditions, as well as proper equipment fitting and safer gameplay techniques.

SDUSD Athletics Director Scott Giusti says advances like these are making the game safer. “Our football is considerably safer now than it was two years ago,” Giusti said, referencing the substantial education coaches receive. “We require our football coaches to go through more training than other sports.”

The availability of new and improved equipment is also a key component of football safety at San Diego Unified schools. The shoulder pads, which absorb the most contact in football, will now be replaced yearly to ensure the best protection for student athletes. In their parents' day, it was common for such pads to see 20 years of wear and tear before being swapped out.

San Diego Unified football teams also benefit from the expertise of UC San Diego Health Sports Medicine. Through this partnership, UCSD athletic trainers assist at all 16 San Diego Unified high schools.

Changing the narrative

The football teams, like all of the athletics programs at San Diego Unified schools, also provide a source of community pride. It was evident to all in attendance when Morse secured the section championship last week, their first in 24 years.

“This was for all the alumni and the community,” said McNair, who says his team's success plays a part in changing the narrative about Southeast San Diego. “My biggest thing is, it tells our kids in our community, 'It's OK to stay at home.'”

James agrees, as the schools' programs are challenging the conventional wisdom in San Diego. “To say you won't make it big in football unless you go to a Cathedral, or a St. Augustine, or a Helix - that's not true.”

University scholarships, better grades, a plan for the future, even highlight clips on ESPN - these student athletes have gained much from the 2018 football season. Instilled in them by James, McNair, Dunn, and the dedicated assistant coaches of their respective teams, the lesson of hard work will stay with each student as they grow in their academic, athletic, and personal lives.

Win or lose this weekend, the players will always carry with them an appreciation for the three Morse alumni who guided them through an unforgettable year.

“Their success is much bigger than just football,” says Board of Education Vice President Dr. Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, who represents the Morse and Lincoln communities. “To have three African-American men, who came from this community right here, to be giving back to their city and serving as positive role models for our kids, that's really powerful.”


  • On November 30th, the Lincoln Hornets defeated Culver City 54-42, and will be playing in the CIF Division 3-AA State Championship on Dec. 15.
  • The Morse Tigers, playing the same night, fought hard but came up short against Central Valley (Visalia). They finish the season as CIF San Diego Section champs.
  • The San Diego Cavers, hosting Linfield Christian (Temecula) on December 1st, won 42-31 and will be playing in the CIF Division 5-AA State Championship on Dec. 15.

Special thanks to @topdawg619 for photo use.