Seasons come and seasons go for St. Francis High football.
But under the guise of Golden Knights Coach Jim Bonds, the goals every year remain unchanged.
Every season, the Golden Knights aspire to win a league championship, advance to the playoffs and contend for a CIF Southern Section title.
No matter how long Bonds, entering his 15th season, and his veteran staff of assistants have stressed those same goals, though, it is unlikely that any Golden Knights squad has carried with it the same lofty expectations as will St. Francis’ 2014 band of brown and gold.
“Coach Bonds knows that there is pressure, especially being in the new league, but coach Bonds and the rest of the coaching staff have got us focused on taking it one game at time,” said senior Mason Williams, a returning starter and All-Area defensive back who’s one of four team captains along with John Carroll, Andy Cesta and Brodie Felkel. “But we know it’s there and we just have to focus.
“We have the definite tools to meet those expectations.”
Boasting a defense filled with returning stars and plenty of talent offensively at the skill positions, St. Francis finds itself as the favorite to win the newly christened Angelus League, free of state and league powerhouses Chaminade and Gardena Serra, who have moved north to the Pac-5 Division (Division I) and taken the Mission League moniker with them. And following a semifinal run in the Western Division (Division IV), the Golden Knights begin 2014 as the favorite to win a championship in the Southeast Division (Division V), in which they are ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls.
There is excitement, there is expectation and there is a whole season of anticipation ahead.
“There’s a lot of hype coming off of last year and we, as a team, know that. We just can’t do it off last year, we have to prove we can do it ourselves,” said Cesta, a senior defensive lineman. “We’re trying to focus not so much on how the media thinks we can do. If we do what we know we can do, we’ll do well.”
While the talent and the opportunity for success seems to be as abundant as the expectations and pressures, Bonds is quick to point out that his Golden Knights must tread lightly as they’re predicted by many to attain goals that haven’t been reached in some time.
“The last time we won a Mission League title was 1997 I think. So we need to worry about league and getting into playoffs first,” Bonds said. “If we can accomplish those two things then the rest will fall into place.”
Indeed, St. Francis last won a Mission League title in 1997, while its last and second CIF-SS crown came in 1964 in a repeat championship bid.
Offensively, the Golden Knights lost nine starters, including the entire offensive line, All-Area Football Player of the Year Ty Gangi at quarterback and All-Area running back Joe Mudie from a team that went 10-3 last season, advanced to the CIF Southern Section Western Division semifinals for the first time since 2005 and took third in the Mission League.
However, there’s still plenty of talent returning at the skill positions, such as highly-recruited All-Area junior receiver Dylan Crawford, tight end John Carroll, a senior who will start for the third season after a pair of All-Area campaigns, and junior running back Areg Nazarian, who did not start last season, but had more than his share of carries and big plays.
It is on defense in which St. Francis finds itself brimming with experience, as eight starters return.
“The strength is definitely in our defense and I feel like the rest of the team feeds off the energy our defensive gives,” Williams said.
Williams heads a talented, quick and fast defensive backfield that also boasts the return of another All-Area and all-league standout in junior Avery Williams. A phenomenal cover cornerback who developed into an excellent tackler, the younger Williams will now move to safety, where he’ll play next to senior Dylan Sweet. Lining up opposite Mason Williams at the other corner spot will be Crawford and Nazarian, with senior Andrew Mackinnon also in the mix.
One question before summer rolled around was with the middle-linebacker spot, but Carroll has gladly stepped in, moving from the outside last season where he was a defensive end/outside backer.
“He’s done a great job adjusting,” said Bonds of Carroll, who’s been a mainstay and a standout at tight end, but last season also produced defensively with four sacks and seven tackles for a loss.
In the outside spots, seniors Ross Niederhaus, a Mission League track champion, and Matt Bayle, who both return with some 2013 starts under their belt, combine with Carroll to form a trio that looks as though its strength will be its ability to fly to the ball.
“Those guys move very well,” Bonds said.
St. Francis’ front might well be the largest quandary on defense.
Cesta could miss the first two games of the season recovering from an injury. After starting all 11 games as a sophomore, multiple injuries limited Cesta to eight games last season.
Felkel, an All-Area and all-league pick who tallied 37 tackles and four sacks, will return to start at defensive end, while senior Nick Horner will line up opposite him. At nose tackle, senior Logan Felan is slated as the starter with senior Drew Nixon at defensive tackle. Thus, at season’s onset, Felkel, Felan and Nixon will all be seeing ample playing time on both sides of the ball.
Nixon and Felan are slated to start on an all-new offensive line that, along with the quarterback position, have been the largest worries leading into the season.
“Bringing in a new quarterback and a new O-line definitely has some concerns,” Bonds said. “They’re coming along.”
At quarterback, senior Jeremiah Martin beat out Bayle for the job. Martin will take over following one phenomenal season from Gangi, who, by all accounts, was a tremendous leader for the team and posted astounding numbers that included 38 total touchdowns and 2,882 yards passing.
It was Gangi’s only season starting at the varsity level, much as it will be for Martin. However, while Gangi was biding his time as a junior back-up, Martin had forgone his junior season to concentrate on baseball before electing to return.
“He’s come along well,” Bonds said. “He’s got some rust from not playing football at all.”
“He’s a really intelligent kid, which I like in my quarterbacks.”
Being asked to protect Martin is a rookie offensive line with Felan at center, Nixon at left tackle, junior John Milner at left guard, senior Nick Peters at right guard and junior Cade Mockary at right tackle.
After that, there’s no shortage of experience at running back and receiver, as the Golden Knights strive for the well-rounded attack that saw them produce 2,890 yards passing and 2,804 rushing last year.
“I think we were extremely balanced last year and strive for that this year,” Bonds said. “But the line’s gonna have a huge say in that.”
Leading the receiving corps is Crawford, who had the definition of a breakout season in 2013, hauling in 54 balls for 993 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“His potential is endless,” Bonds said. “He’s one of the most talented kids we’ve ever had here as far as athletic ability.
“I think that is one of the things that’s gotten him so much attention is his pure athletic ability.”
Attention has come from a slew of notable NCAA Division I colleges, including UCLA and USC, as Crawford has become a constant deep threat whose hands have improved.
“We haven’t always had that guy who could stretch the defense,” Bonds said. “He definitely gives us that.”
Junior Jasher Foster, Avery and Mason Williams, along with Sweet will also line up in the receiver spots of Bonds’ offense, which always offers myriad sets. A double-tight end look could be prevalent with Felkel and Carroll back. Carroll hauled in 49 catches for 694 yards and seven scores last year. Carroll’s also likely to line up at fullback and H-back.
Elsewhere in the backfield, Nazarian is an explosive and dynamic presence who can also get the hard yards, having rushed for 623 yards and five touchdowns in 88 carries a season ago. While he’ll be the primary ballcarrier, Niederhaus and Avery Williams will also get carries, with Williams as the short-yardage back.
Continuing the St. Francis theme of versatility and returning talent, Felkel will handle the punting duties again, while All-Area kicker Kareem Zeenni returns, as well.
Returning as foes for St. Francis will be Cathedral, Harvard-Westlake and St. Paul, as the foursome remained together after Chaminade and Serra broke away. Joining the old Mission League quartet will be Salesian and La Salle to comprise the Angelus League. So far, Salesian is ranked third in the Southeast Division and Cathedral weighs in at No. 7.
St. Francis, which opens its season Friday against Chino in the first of six home games, is seen by many prognosticators as having a favorable situation, considering its returning talent and change of league and division, to do big things. So, with all that’s been written and predicted before a game has been played, Bonds has stressed a game-by-game approach and that his players cannot revel in their own hype before they’ve actually accomplished anything.
“We had some discussions throughout the summer and then the first day of fall camp to set the tone again,” Bonds said.
Above all else, Bonds believes it will be the intangibles that could loom largest.
Aside from losing talented on-field contributions from the likes of Gangi, Mudie, Kevin Maloof and Trevor Provencio, St. Francis lost within those players some valuable leadership.
“I think the leaders taking control of their team and the season and everybody buying into what St. Francis football is all about is the key,” Bonds said.
Of course, whether or not that all falls into place can’t be measured until games are played. So far, it appears the Golden Knights have their team heading in the right direction.
“We know our potential now, it’s just about working as hard as we can,” Felkel said. “It’s your senior year, it’s time to step up. You have to take control on the field.”
Added Carroll: “You have to learn to deal with the pressure and overcome that pressure and once you learn to deal with the pressure you can turn your team into something great.”