Grant Gordon, Glendale News Press
For 11 weeks in the autumn of 2014, St. Francis High’s football team lived up to the overwhelming expectations that had resided upon its collective shoulders since well before the season had even kicked off.
But then came a fateful road trip to play La Serna.
With two key injuries and hardly their best effort to boot, the Golden Knights, the No. 1 seed in the CIF Southern Section Southeast Division, saw their undefeated season concluded by the Lancers in the quarterfinals with a 38-35 loss.
Now, the roles are very much reversed.
La Serna, the Southeast’s Division’s top seed this time around, travels to Friedman Field on Friday night to face St. Francis at 7 in a semifinal showdown.
“When I told them we’re down to the final four and we get to play the team that ended our season playing at our place, I’d say for sure, no question, they were excited,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds about his team’s reaction when he told the Golden Knights they’d host La Serna following Friday’s night’s 21-7 quarterfinal victory over fourth-seeded Burroughs. “They’re excited to still be playing. “That’s enough to motivate us, not that we need any more motivation being in the semifinals.”
Last season, Bonds’ bunch won the Angelus League title, while the Lancers took second in the Del Rio League. This time around, it’s St. Francis, which took third in league, that’s the underdog, while La Serna won the Del Rio League title and earned the division’s top seed. But, beyond all the storylines of role reversals and a rematch a year and a playoff round later, is the simple and most important notion that a CIF Southeast Division championship berth is at stake.
St. Francis (9-3), making its second trip to the semifinals in three seasons, would return to the CIF championship game for the first time since 1964 if it upends La Serna (10-2), which is in its sixth consecutive semifinal. On the other half of the bracket is Angelus League champion Cathedral (11-1), the No. 3 seed, hosting second-seeded La Mirada (9-3), the Suburban League titlist. Should St. Francis prevail, it would be on the road regardless of its opponent.
“We try not to talk about it,” said Lancers Coach Andy George of last season’s game against St. Francis. “No matter what happened last year, we expect it to be a great game and we know that’s a good program.”
George, a former assistant who took over the program just before the season opener following the dismissal of longtime coach Margarito Beltran, has the Lancers riding a seven-game winning streak into Friday. Every victory in that span has seen La Serna score 42 or greater points, with a 49-21 win over Paramount in the first round of the playoffs and a 68-42 win against Harvard-Westlake in the quarterfinals.
In the win over Harvard-Westlake, La Serna running back Anthony Garcia had 326 yards rushing in 23 carries for five touchdowns, while running back Brandon Jimenez also had three touchdowns and better than 100 yards rushing. Quarterback Jonathan Ceballos, also a rushing threat, had 113 yards on seven-of-14 passing for one touchdown.
“We’ve had some very good success running the ball,” George said. “We try to keep it as balanced as we can.”
While the head coach might be different, the offensive scheme synonymous with the Lancers remains and that’s the wing-T offense, run primarily out of the shotgun, which features lots of shifting, lots of misdirection and lots of confusion.
“Basically a nightmare to prepare for in two or three days,” Bonds said. “We can simulate it as best as we can, but as best as we can do it, it will pale in comparison to what we’ll see on Friday night.”
It was largely the St. Francis defense’s inability to contain the Lancers offense in the first half of last season’s quarterfinal that led to the defeat. La Serna rattled off 31 first-half points before St. Francis made adjustments, but the Lancers rallied for a game-winning fourth-quarter touchdown. If anything was gained in the loss, it was a better understanding of keeping things simple.
More than anything, the largest key to containing the Lancers’ offense will be fundamental tackling and being disciplined. “If you break it down to those two things, it’s pretty right on,” Bonds said.
It’s a message that’s been conveyed to the Golden Knights. “Fundamentals really is everything for us now,” said junior linebacker Maxx Jakeway, who leads St. Francis with 101 tackles. “Everybody has to do their job right now, stay sound.”
Offensively, quarterback Miles Bryant (1,756 yards passing, 16 touchdowns) has been consistent for St. Francis, receiver Jasher Foster (nine total touchdowns) has been a gamebreaker and running back Areg Nazarian (808 yards rushing, seven touchdowns) has returned from injury to lead the way. But the Golden Knights defense has very much been the catalyst.
“I know they have a very good defense. I think it’s gonna be a physical contest,” George said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to still move the ball offensively, but I think it’s gonna be an uphill battle.”
It’s been led by defensive end Sean Davitt (21 sacks), who had a monstrous game against Burroughs, tallying 12 tackles and six sacks. The Golden Knights, who also feature defensive lineman Buster Roebuck and cornerback Jacob De la Hoya, have held all five of their opponents during their current five-game winning streak to 19 points or less, including a first-round 21-19 win over Warren and the second-round 21-7 victory against Burroughs.
“The coaches really prepare us for what the teams are going to do and get us ready,” Jakeway said. “We’ve just been playing together and executing.”
The teams have just one common opponent in Harvard-Westlake, with vastly different outcomes. While La Serna rumbled past the Wolverines last week, St. Francis lost on a Hail Mary, 27-21, on Oct. 15. The loss to the Wolverines was the last in a three-game losing streak for St. Francis that saw a deflating 34-0 nonleague setback against Calabasas, followed by heartbreaking league losses to Salesian in double-overtime and Harvard-Westlake on the last play.
Now, the Golden Knights find themselves waking up for practice on Thanksgiving Day with a berth in the CIF championship on the line the day after.
“The kids are excited,” George said. “And it’s always nice to be practicing the week of Thanksgiving.”
Bonds, who has already fielded plenty of calls and emails from well-wishing alumni and expects a packed Friedman Field, knows the holiday weekend crowd will be huge and the atmosphere electric with the stakes so high.