As every spring is very much associated with fresh starts and new beginnings, there has perhaps been no spring that better exemplified that notion than that which just passed for St. Francis High football.
While the Golden Knights were in the spring stages of developing a new quarterback and a brand new offensive line with ballyhooed returners John Carroll, Dylan Crawford, Andy Cesta, Avery Williams and Mason Williams back in the mix, the fate and future of St. Francis football was very much the story off the field.
“It was pretty up and down there for a while,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds of what became a lengthy process of CIF Southern Section divisional realignment and releaguing rife with appeals.
At the onset, with reigning state champion Chaminade and 2012 state champion Gardena Serra set to bolt the Mission League and move north from the Western Division (seen by most as Division IV) to the Pac-5 Division (Division I), St. Francis was under the belief it would be back in its same division playing in a four-team Mission League. Things quickly changed, though, with many believing St. Francis would eventually be moved up to be part of an eight-team, two-league Catholic contingent in the Pac-5 Division.
When all the dust settled and all the speeches were made and votes cast at an April 30 appeal meeting, however, St. Francis was staying put in a revamped Mission League that will now include holdovers Los Angeles Cathedral, Harvard-Westlake and St. Paul along with newcomers La Salle and Salesian. On top of that, the Golden Knights and the rest of the league were moved from the Western Division to the Southeast Division (Division VII) in a May 21 meeting.
Through it all, the Golden Knights were still up and at it for spring practice, normally 6 a.m. to 7:30 Monday through Friday, with assorted passing leagues and tournaments thrown in.
“We’re definitely aware of it, especially with social media these days with Twitter and Facebook, not much gets past us,” said Mason Williams, a senior who will return to start in the defensive backfield after an All-Area campaign. “But our coaches are keeping us focused.
“We’ve been going about it that we don’t care about who we’re playing, we’re just going to play to the best of our ability.”
Hence, though the arena in which St. Francis will compete has very much changed, the Golden Knights’ seasonal goals have not.
“It’s something that we heard about,” Carroll said. “There’s still some tough teams in our league.
“The goal is still to come out, work hard, work fast and win the Mission League.”
Much the same, the goals of spring practice were not altered either.
“What we like to do is install our offense and defense [in the spring],” Bonds said. “Then we come back in the summer and it’s more about retuning and refining.”
St. Francis’ spring ball, which very much starts with offseason weight lifting in February and transfers into morning practices and seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills in the spring, concluded May 30, with this past week allowing the Golden Knights to focus on finals. St. Francis will then resume preparation for the 2014 season with summer practices starting June 30.
By then, it’s likely more hype and expectation will have surfaced, as many are predicting St. Francis to be a prohibitive favorite to win the Mission League and the Southeast Division title.
“I think that perception is gonna be out there,” Bonds said. “Without Serra and Chaminade in our league, right away that should increase expectations and our hope.”
As pressure and expectation have already started to rise in the aftermath of the CIF releaguing and divisional realignment, Bonds and company are quick to point out that while last season produced a run to the Western Division semifinals and a 10-3 record, graduation has taken quarterback and All-Area Football Player of the Year Ty Gangi, All-Area running back Joe Mudie and the entire starting offensive line, which included multi-year starters and standouts Austin Finton, Joe Loubier and Trevor Provencio.
“Losing that experience up front and trying to replace Ty Gangi are going to be tall orders,” Bonds said.
It’s a process already well underway, though.
“I think our defense right now is gonna be the strength of our team and we’re trying to catch up on offense,” said Carroll, a two-time All-Area pick who will return at tight end and move to middle linebacker. “It’s been difficult at times, but I think we’re making a lot of progress and I really like how the offensive line and the quarterback are looking.”
At quarterback, senior Matt Bale, last year’s reserve who’s recovering from an ACL injury, and senior Jeremiah Martin, who started at the freshman and junior varsity level before sitting out his junior season, are in the proverbial quarterback competition.
“It’s gonna be a great battle,” Bonds said.
With a half-dozen All-Area selections returning, the cupboard is hardly bare, though. Running back Areg Nazarian, a breakaway threat last year, has also impressed and gotten stronger in the spring. Carroll, who has been offered by UNLV, and Crawford, who has received offers from UCLA, USC, Miami, Tennessee and others, have drawn big-time notice already as the onus in the spring has been bringing newcomers up to speed in more ways than one.
“It’s not about winning or losing at passing leagues, it’s about execution,” Mason Williams said. “Can we learn the plays, can we execute them?”
Said defensive end Andy Cesta, whose season was cut short by an injury last year: “For us, it’s just team building right now and teaching the new guys the plays and what we expect of them.”
A lot will be expected of all the Golden Knights when the season rolls around Sept. 5 at Friedman Field against Chino. But, if nothing more, the spring has given the Golden Knights a first go-round in dealing with off-the-field distractions beyond their control, while maintaining their focus on the field.
“We’re not affected by the outside,” Cesta said. “We just need to go out and play the game.”
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter: @TCNGrantGordon.