Semifinal battle awaits St. Francis

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Just three weeks ago, the St. Francis High soccer team had visions of winning a Mission League championship. That never materialized.

However, it’s not like the Golden Knights have been seething over their missed opportunity.

They’ve since done something about the situation by excelling during the most important time of the year — the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs — with quality goalkeeping, defense and timely goals.

It’s equated to St. Francis hosting second-seeded Long Beach Millikan in a semifinal match at 3 p.m. today at Friedman Field.

Mission League-rival and champion Loyola will battle top-seeded El Toro in the other semifinal match at 3 p.m. today. The championship match will be played Friday or Saturday at a location to be determined.

“We had hoped to compete and win the league title, but it just didn’t happen,” St. Francis Coach Glen Appels said. “We were a couple of goals away, and it’s disappointing getting fourth.

“Now, we are in the final four against a good team. No matter how good the defenses are, I think both teams will get some chances.”

St. Francis advanced to today’s match with a 3-2 sudden-death road victory against Long Beach Jordan on Friday. Senior forward Amir Moore scored the winning goal six minutes into the extra session. Eric Verso and G.P. Gonzalez also tallied scores for the Golden Knights, who also picked up playoff victories against Tesoro and Newbury Park. St. Francis has allowed two goals in 246 minutes played in the postseason.

The Golden Knights (16-5-4) and Rams (26-3-2) are programs steeped in tradition. St. Francis has won three CIF championships between 1996-2003, while Millikan has captured division crowns in 1992 and 2002.

With a victory today, the Golden Knights or Rams can try to add to that championship total.

The Rams, who captured the Moore League title before picking up shutout playoff wins against Fountain Valley, St. John Bosco and West Torrance, have won five consecutive matches. They have recorded 19 shutouts this season, all by junior goalkeeper Jorge Becerra.

“Every year is like this [in the playoffs],” said Millikan Coach Rod Petkovic, who started the program 27 years ago. “We know that we are going up against a team with a tremendous CIF history, and Glen’s done a great job up there.

“We are looking at it to be a tight game. We don’t have that one special guy because we play well collectively as a team. We have balance and try to play a complete game both ways.”

The Rams, who have qualified for the postseason each year of their existence, will be led on defense by senior sweeper Manuel Estrada and senior stopper Cesar Ramirez. Jose Torres scored the lone goal to carry Millikan to a 1-0 home quarterfinal win against West Torrance on Friday.

Gonzalez, a senior forward, said the Golden Knights can’t be overconfident against the Rams.

“We really haven’t accomplished much,” said Gonzalez, who knotted the match at 2 in the 56th minute against Jordan after Jordan scored a minute earlier. “[Millikan] has a good team and they’ve been a powerhouse.

“We have to keep staying focused and keep working on our defense. If our defense is doing its job, then the goals will come.”

St. Francis senior midfielder Brett McCreary said the Golden Knights will look to ride their crest of momentum following Friday’s match.

“I think we’ve got a ton of momentum,” McCreary said. “We’ve been training and playing hard since the playoffs [began], and we are kind of like the underdogs.

“I’m told that Millikan is real strong. If we play our game, then we have a chance.”

The Golden Knights have also gotten some quality efforts from senior goalkeeper Jordan Bell, who made 12 saves against Jordan. He also tallied shutouts behind a strong defensive effort against Tesoro and Newbury Park.

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