DOWNEY — Who knew fourth place and a second chance would lead to all of this.
Maybe it wasn’t improbable, but it was certainly magical.
Maybe it wasn’t exactly a Cinderella story, but the feeling was indeed “unbelievable” in the words of Glen Appels.
“It’s a whole different ballgame,” said Appels on a perfect Saturday night for St. Francis High’s soccer program. “Most of the time we’ve won championships, it’s something we saw coming, it was building.”
But this was one nobody could’ve predicted a month ago, much less a week prior.
Under Appels, the Golden Knights have won three CIF championships, but on Saturday claimed the Division II CIF Southern California Regional Soccer Championships final with a resounding 4-2 victory against a physical San Diego Cathedral Catholic squad to culminate a season of peaks and valleys that concluded with ultimate success.
“I can’t put it into words,” St. Francis senior defender Nick Rihn said. “It’s amazing.”
Nevermind the fact that it was the first such title claimed by a storied St. Francis program, after all, it is only the second year of the regional format.
The true magic of this tale comes in the story line.
Last season’s Golden Knights were supposed to be the better team. They won the Mission League title and were one of the deepest and most talented squads in Appels’ tenure.
This season’s Golden Knights lost their final two regular season matches, taking fourth place in league.
But it was this group of Knights that played for as long as they could play.
“The heart and the desire,” said Rihn of what made this group stand out. “We won a few games and we started to believe.”
Throughout his team’s run to the CIF Southern Section Division I semifinals, Appels never hesitated to express how proud he was of his squad, which represents a school of roughly 700 students, for succeeding against the biggest and best that Division I had to offer.
Coupled with the aforementioned fourth-place league finish, it conveyed quite the underdog story.
Alas it was a story with a heartbreaking finish, as the semifinals saw a 3-2 overtime loss to Long Beach Millikan in which the Golden Knights relinquished three goals — two of them own goals — that could be described in no other way than unlucky.
But a second chance found its way to the Golden Knights. A berth was to be had in the Division II Regionals.
“We were crushed by that loss,” said St. Francis sophomore forward Eric Verso, “but this more than makes up for that. We’re on top of the world right now — it feels great.”
Often an overused term, great was exactly the adjective to describe the play of St. Francis during its second-chance run to first-time glory.
The Golden Knights outscored their three Regional opponents, 10-3, as their offense came alive to a daunting degree and the defense remained tenacious.
More than anything, though, they showed resolve and the ability to pick themselves up.
They did it in the Division I playoffs after they limped into them. And they did it in the Regionals after they thought their season — and some of their playing days — were over and done.
“These guys are resilient,” Appels said. “It takes a lot of character to come back to do what we did.”
And, along the way, Verso and senior forward Amir Moore and sophomore Jake LaPorte and senior goalie Jordan Bell made names for themselves along these pages and others like them by coming up clutch. But it truly was more than just big-time goals and saves.
“We’re a team,” Rihn said, “and that’s our strength.”
A team that proved itself as one of the state’s very best, while defying setback and odds.
In past seasons, on top of league titles, tournaments such as their own Ralph Brandt Tournament have seen the Golden Knights emerge as the victors. But there was no such luck this year. If nothing more, these Golden Knights told a great story, and, in doing so, saved the best for last.
“It doesn’t compare to anything like this,” said Rihn of winning regular season tournaments, such as the 2008 team did on three occasions. “I’ve won some club tournaments, too, and it’s nothing like this. This is 10 times better.”
Only a select few teams find themselves playing on the final day of the season, much less walking away as winners.
As Appels and his Golden Knights gathered for one last picture on Saturday night, he had one final instruction: “One finger guys, put up one finger.”
Shortly after the Golden Knights had collectively pointed their index fingers to the sky, Appels and his boys walked away from Warren High.
“We’ll be happy for a while,” he said.
And, in the happy end, fourth place and a second chance were a forgotten equation that led to a championship.