St. Francis, La Cañada High boys' basketball teams have semifinal fever

Two schools, separated by only a long driveway, will see their respective boys' basketball teams play Friday night for something more crucial than just city bragging rights, but for the right to play in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship contest.

Certainly no strangers to one another, second-seeded St. Francis High and third-seeded La Cañada have topped off their final preparations and are set to meet in a semifinal game at 7 p.m. at Maranatha High in Pasadena.

Along with the players being familiar with one another, St. Francis co-Coaches Ray O'Brien and Jeff Stephens once worked under the tutelage of veteran La Cañada Coach Tom Hofman, who has more than 600 career victories.

There's a buzz that's been created leading up to the contest immediately after the Golden Knights and Spartans won their quarterfinal games Tuesday.

"Both the players and coaches already know each other," said O'Brien, who, along with Stephens, ran La Cañada's lower-level teams for years before moving on to St. Francis for the 2008-09 season. "We see them in the spring and summer and then during the season, so there's that mutual respect that you continue to build.

"We are very close. Tom and I have breakfast every Saturday during the Mission and Rio Hondo League parts of the season. Tom is very generous to have shared and continue to share his success with Jeff and I."

Hofman, who guided the Spartans to the Rio Hondo League championship, has often credited Stephens and O'Brien for being catalysts in shaping the face of the Spartans for more than two decades.

"They were always a great help to the program," said Hofman, whose has led La Cañada to CIF-SS championships in 1992 and 2011. "They were a big influence to the program when they were here. It's going to be fun for the coaches to coach this game, and there will be a lot of positive energy from the players on both teams.

"The key [for La Cañada] will be our defense because St. Francis does a nice job of passing and getting to the basket. We know our defensive rotation will have to be good."

St. Francis, which received an at-large entry out of the rugged Mission League, will be the designated home game. Originally, the Golden Knights planned to have the game in their home gymnasium, but O'Brien said the facility could seat up to only about 750 fans. He estimated Maranatha, just a few miles from both campuses, could seat close to 1,500 spectators if both sets of bleachers are used.

The Golden Knights are familiar with Maranatha after playing in the Crown City Classic. O'Brien said St. Francis practiced Wednesday and Thursday at the school to become further acclimated with the facility.

"It's close by for everybody to get to, and it's an event for the whole community to enjoy," said O'Brien, whose team posted a 58-51 victory against the Spartans on Dec. 30 in the third-place contest of the San Gabriel Valley Classic at Monrovia High on Dec. 30. "We played four games there, so we have a pretty good idea.

"The key for us will be how well we are shotting three-pointers. We are going to try to take away each other's strengths."

The Golden Knights and Spartans have both enjoyed success throughout the playoffs. St. Francis opened the postseason with a 63-59 overtime road win against unseeded Yucca Valley before notching a 69-45 second-round win against host San Dimas. The Golden Knights then picked up a 55-43 quarterfinal win against 10th-seeded Gladstone.

The Spartans began the postseason with a 59-39 home win against unseeded Glenn and then secured an 87-51 home win in the second round versus 14th-seeded Lompoc. La Cañada then rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit to post a 57-53 quarterfinal road win against six-seeded Pioneer.

St. Francis has been led by junior guard Kyle Leufroy, a reigning All-Area pick. Leufroy scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter to thwart Gladstone. The Golden Knights have also received good postseason performances from Noah Willerford, John Carroll, Evan Crawford and Michael Allen.

Willerford, who had 13 points against Gladstone, said the Golden Knights welcome the opportunity to face the Spartans.

"It will be a big deal for the players," Willerford said. "We pretty much know each other, and I think it's going to be a good game between two good teams. That's what you want to see happen."

The Spartans will counter with Grant Arthur, Ko Ko Kurdoghlian, Dan Jun and Kevin Depriest. June had 11 of his 13 points in the fourth quarter against Pioneer.

Arthur, a sophomore guard, said the Spartans will look to avenge their defeat against the Golden Knights.

"We had some trouble with St. Francis before, but we've improved quite a lot," Arthur said. "There will be a lot of support for both sides and it will be one of the most exciting sporting events in the past few years in the city."

The other semifinal game will match top-seeded Santa Barbara (25-2) against fourth-seeded Oak Park (19-10). The championship game will likely be played March 7 or 8 at a site to be determined.

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