DOWNEY — Before the seats in the stands at Justice Stadium were warm, the St. Francis High soccer team was already well on its way to putting its first-ever CIF Southern California Regional Championship title on ice.
The second-seeded Golden Knights shocked Division II No. 1 seed San Diego Cathedral Catholic with two unanswered goals inside of the first 10 minutes on Saturday night at Warren High in Downey and delivered what amounted to an early knockout with two more tallies before halftime en route to a 4-2 victory and a raucous onfield celebration.
“They’re winners, and today it shows,” St. Francis Coach Glen Appels said. “There’s some kids on our team who have gone through some big hardships and we fought our way through some injuries and some really heartbreaking losses, so to be there holding the [Regional] championship trophy, it’s an enormous day.”
Sophomore Jake La Porte led St. Francis with two goals, sophomore Eric Verso scored and assisted on two more and senior Amir Moore added one more tally during the Golden Knights’ first-half run.
“For me being a sophomore, first year on varsity, to come out and score two goals in a final and get our school a Regional championship, it feels good,” said La Porte, whose goals on Saturday were just his second and third of the season. “We wanted to come out and put [the Dons] away quick because we knew they were a tough opponent and they had some good players.
“We did exactly what we wanted — we came out and we put goals away and we took care of business.”
Verso, who scored a total of five goals in the three-game tournament, opened the scoring in the second minute with a shot from the left side off a cross from senior GP Gonzalez.
About eight minutes later, Verso peeled away from his defender to open up another good look for himself, but this one was blocked by Cathedral goalkeeper Drew Illijevsky.
La Porte scooped up the rebound inside the box for an easy goal, and the Golden Knights (18-6-5) were out in front, 2-0.
Midway through the half, St. Francis keeper Jordan Bell (six saves) had a nice five-minute stretch that included saves on shots by Todd Mata and Sal Giacalone to keep the Dons off the board until the Golden Knights were able to expand the lead in the 24th minute.
Verso rifled a shot into the box, where the ball was deflected off a fortuitously positioned Moore and into the goal.
“We’re gonna order some of those Nike balls, we think that might have been the difference,” Appels joked. “Things fell our way, but they fell our way because of the energy and the effort.”
La Porte scored the team’s final score on a feed from sophomore Garrett Swart before Cathedral (19-7-4) finally broke through with a long goal by Kian Mogharabi that sailed just over Bell.
With frustration as the likely motivation, Cathedral began to play chippy and physical, a trend the officials initially seemed ill-inclined to avert. The Dons were issued two yellow cards and two reds, with the first red coming when a Cathedral player kicked a Golden Knight less than a minute before the end of the first half and the last red coming in the game’s final minute.
“I thought there were a lot of things going on where guys could get hurt,” Appels said. “I understand these kids are competitors and they’re not used to giving up four goals in a half, but that’s where the referee has to step in.”
But despite being down three goals and a man to begin the second half, Cathedral dominated possession and forced some renewed urgency on St. Francis when Nelson Griswold drew the Dons within 4-2 on a header assisted by Josh Cintas in the 64th minute.
“They’re an outstanding team with an outstanding offense,” Bell said of Cathedral. “They were on us all game and our defense pushed back and pushed back.
“Their first goal was a little fluky, the second goal was my fault for coming out, but we got a big early lead, which I don’t think has ever happened this year for us. It was uncharted territory, but I’ll take four goals in one half.”
Uncharted territory is exactly where this St. Francis squad will leave its mark on area lore, as the first Regional champion and the first team at its school to win a championship of any kind since the program captured a CIF Southern Section Division II crown in 2003.
“There’s a lot of emotions, happiness. ... It’s a great moment, to win a championship,” Verso said, “it’s what you dream about as a kid, as a soccer player.”