OAK PARK — In getting to the quarterfinals, the members of the St. Francis High basketball team took one gigantic step forward.
The Golden Knights were eliminated in the second round last season and then lost several of their top players to graduation.
In what might have been considered a transition season, St. Francis shored up its depth and found some building blocks to reach the quarterfinals for the first time in more than a decade..
Unfortunately for St. Francis, its season came to a close Tuesday night with a 64-42 road defeat against second-seeded Oak Park in a CIF Southern Section Division III-A contest.
“I think we made some steps in the right direction and now they know what they need to do better,” said St. Francis co-Coach Ray O’Brien, whose seventh-seeded team finished 17-14. “We want to take it to the next level.
“In order for us to win tonight, we had to stay close. We lost contact and they got to a lot of loose balls. It slipped away in the end.”
Oak Park, which will meet third-seeded Chaminade or 11th-seeded Tahquitz in a semifinal game Friday, improved to 27-3. The Eagles got things going early, making four three-pointers in the first quarter to grab a 21-8 advantage.
St. Francis, which registered earlier postseason victories against Lompoc and San Dimas, couldn’t catch Oak Park. The Golden Knights had no response for Oak Park’s Ron Lee Jr., who finished with a game-high 27 points.
“With our first shot in the game, it went in and out,” O’Brien said. “Then they come down and hit their first three-pointer.
“They made some early shots and we got beat on some rebounds.”
St. Francis received a team-high 17 points from Kyle Leufroy and eight from Evan Crawford.
St. Francis crept to within 41-31 on a layup by Markar Agakanian with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. However, the Golden Knights could get no closer.
Oak Park, which won the Tri-Valley League championship, finished up on a 23-11 run.
“We just didn’t come out ready to play,” said Leufroy, a sophomore guard. “They got to most of the 50-50 balls and we had some turnovers.
“We just couldn’t make our shots. We will learn from this and try to get better next season.”
Oak Park Coach Aaron Shaw, who guided the Eagles to an appearance in the finals last season, praised St. Francis.
“They have got a real good team with a lot of good young players,” Shaw said. “We saw them on film and they were good.
“They will have a good team next year. They are a lot like we were a couple of years ago. Our players have been through a lot the last few years and we have five starting seniors. They bring a lot of experience and development.”
The Golden Knights will return the core of their starting lineup next season, including Leufroy, Crawford, Agakanian and Noah Willerford.
“I think our guys now have a better idea of what to expect next year, and we are confident they will be better,” O’Brien said.