Following victories in consecutive seasons, including a 29-point triumph in September, St. Francis High's football team's fortunes against La Serna had seemingly changed in its favor.
However, the Golden Knights' two victories over the Lancers were of the nonleague variety, whereas La Serna had ended St. Francis' seasons in 2014 and 2015 in the playoffs.
When the teams met for the fifth time in four seasons and the second time this year, La Serna once again showed its postseason moxie.
But Kevin Armstead, who was not yet in high school when the teams last clashed in the playoffs, sealed a nailbiting triumph for the Golden Knights as they defeated the Lancers, 31-27, in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division III playoffs on Friday night at Friedman Field.
"He's had some unbelievable interceptions all year," said St. Francis coach Jim Bonds of Armstead, a sophomore corner back/running back who has a team-high five interceptions, "but none bigger than that one obviously."
With St. Francis (10-1) clinging to its four-point lead, La Serna (6-5) took over on its 28-yard line with 4:15 to play. Nine plays later — eight of them runs and one of them an incomplete pass — the Lancers were on the St. Francis 14-yard line when quarterback Andrew Henriquez dropped back and threw an out. Armstead jumped the route and made a dazzling interception as he fell to the ground.
"I was surprised [they passed the ball]. They had a really good running game," said Armstead, who also had 11 carries for 43 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning one-yard run with 10:56 to play. "I saw the quarterback look at the receiver and I knew it was coming my way."
St. Francis quarterback Darius Perrantes took a couple of knees and St. Francis had finally defeated La Serna in the playoffs, pulling ahead in the rivalry, 3-2, with three straight wins.
"We had beat them twice in a row, but those were preseason games. But they knocked us out of the playoffs twice," Bonds said, "so to get over that hurdle is a big one for us."
St. Francis, which finished second in the Angelus League, will now take a long road trip to face No. 2 seed Citrus Hill (10-1), which defeated Newbury Park, 56-35, on Friday.
Perrantes completed 12 of 26 passes for 169 yards with one touchdown — a 20-yarder to Greg Dulcich. Perrantes added a six-yard rushing score, while Elijah Washington carried 11 times for 70 yards with eight carries for 67 yards in the second half.
St. Francis defeated La Serna, 49-20, on Sept. 15, but the Lancers gave the Golden Knights far more trouble on Friday.
"They had a little different plan on offense," Bonds said. "They were a little more balanced."
Led by 116 yards in 19 carries from Fonzie Ibanez, La Serna had 212 yards on the ground and Henriquez threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns.
The game was tied at 21 at halftime, but a 34-yard go-ahead field goal by Nico Boschetti with 6:48 left in the third quarter put the Golden Knights in front, 24-21, and Armstead's one-yard score increased the lead to 31-21. The Armstead score was set up by a Blake Howard interception.
St. Francis defensive back and special teams standout Bobby Gazmarian blocked a point-after attempt following an Isaac Contreras seven-yard scoring run with 6:07 to go in the game. Contreras' six were the only points allowed by St. Francis in the second half.
"[At halftime], we just said we had to play 24 minutes of Golden Knight football," Bonds said. "We didn't feel like we did that in the first half.
"Our defense stepped up and held them to six points in the second half."
The teams traded shots throughout the first half.
La Serna grabbed the initial lead when it marched 80 yards on the opening drive with Contreras sweeping right for a two-yard touchdown with 5:50 to go in the first quarter.
St. Francis struck back on its opening drive, going 59 yards in just five plays with Perrantes running in for a six-yard score with 3:47 left in the first. Perrantes was three for three on the drive for 53 yards, all to Isaac Cordova (four catches for 66 yards).
Perrantes completed his first six passes for 119 yards, his fifth a 20-yard touchdown to Dulcich that led to a 14-7 advantage.
But La Serna answered that score with a touchdown pass on fourth and six that covered 14 yards.
On a drive kept alive by an illegal participation penalty against La Serna on a St. Francis punt, the Golden Knights went ahead 21-14 in the second quarter when Armstead rushed in from 18 yards on a direct snap.
Yet again, La Serna answered with Paul Duarte scoring on an 80-yard screen play.
However, St. Francis' offense began to wane as the first half went into the intermission.
The running game caught life in the second half, though, and the defense held true and St. Francis finally got its postseason win over La Serna.