LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Upon first glance and first thought, one would likely come to think that the St. Francis High football team is in a period of rebuilding, looking to replace a great deal of standout seniors, the most notable being UCLA-bound Dietrich Riley, who was an unprecedented three-time All-Area Football Player of the Year.
But a closer look reveals that these Golden Knights, in their spring form, are an experienced group that their coach, Jim Bonds, believes might even be further ahead at this point of the year.
"The big thing is for [players] to experience the success and the big wins and the success we had last year — I think they feed off that more than anything," said Bonds of his returners, who include five players that were just sophomores a season ago. "I feel like this group is the type of group where they have that ability to come in and not only repeat, but go farther than last year."
After a 9-3 season in which the Golden Knights advanced to the CIF Southern Section Western Division quarterfinals, there are, indeed, high hopes, but, by all accounts, the team's experience and preparation exceeds that of last year's squad at this point of the year.
"We've got a lot of guys coming back," said offensive tackle Patrick Carroll, who will return for his third year starting on the offensive line as a two-time All-Area and All-Mission League honoree. "I feel we're gonna be more experienced than we were last year."
And day-by-day improvement seems to be the current mantra for the newest batch of Golden Knights.
"Right now, it's all about getting better every day and improving," said Michael Melnick, a running back and linebacker who returns after an All-Area junior campaign. "Once we get the pads on, we'll see who can hit and who can really play. Until then, it's just about getting better every day."
Spring practice began May 18 for the Golden Knights, but in Bonds' mind it was simply a technicality. With the absence of the CIF's past "no-association" rule, regulations on the amount of time during the offseason in which football practices and meetings can occur are few and far between.
Thus, St. Francis started morning sessions back in January and Bonds believes it's accelerated the learning curve.
"I think we're ahead of where we were last year," Bonds said. "We don't start at square one, we're just trying to build on what we did in those mornings in the offseason.
"Really, our spring, our offseason, started in January. That's when we started identifying our leaders."
In addition to the talent void left by the perhaps irreplaceable Riley, as well as other standouts such as quarterback Justin Posthuma and linebacker Chris Cabrera, there is a vacancy of leadership that must be addressed.
"That was probably the hardest part was seeing who was gonna step up and be loud," Melnick said. "That's key for this team is leadership and I think we've got a lot of leaders."
Still, with the aforementioned experience factor bolstered by the likes of Carroll, Melnick, defensive back/receiver Ryan Jenkins and standout receiver Travis Talianko, it seems as if leaders are being sorted out and chemistry is formulating, the latter being another key to the spring.
"It's also about getting to know who you're playing with," Carroll said. "You've gotta have chemistry."
"You've gotta get that chemistry so once you get into August, you're ready to go."
Carroll might also sustain the recruiting buzz that grew to an overwhelming level with colleges swarming to sign Riley. The 6-foot-5 standout has reportedly already drawn interest from some major colleges.
He also anchors an offensive line that will clearly be a major asset to this year's team.
"Our offensive line is gonna be the strength of our team," Bonds said. "We've got four guys coming back. These guys have gotten bigger and stronger."
In addition to Carroll at left tackle, left guard Joe Marrone, Kristion Grbavac at center and right tackle Andrew Fujimoto will return with starting experience.
While Melnick will "have some big shoes to fill running the ball," it's likely that Brett Nelson will try and fill a big void at quarterback, as Posthuma leaves with his 33 total touchdowns.
"I would say right now it's Brett's job to lose," said Bonds of Nelson, who's more of a drop-back passer as opposed to Posthuma, who was always a rushing threat. "He knows the offense the best."
With final exams on the horizon this week for St. Francis, spring practice technically ended on Friday for the Golden Knights. Nonetheless, the team will jump back in the weight room later this month before beginning summer practice on June 21, which will conclude on July 22, not long after the annual St. Francis Passing Tournament on July 9.