LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Within the aftermath of the resurrection of the St. Francis High football program that was the 2009 season, it is overwhelming change that, at first glance, appears at the forefront for the Golden Knights going forward.
Gone are a core group of players that include leading tackler and middle linebacker Chris Cabrera, standout lineman David Chirikian, dual-threat quarterback Justin Posthuma and Dietrich Riley, the three-time reigning All-Area Football Player of the Year who was an Under Armour All-American and arguably the most highly-recruited athlete in area chronicle.
In addition, the 2010 schedule awaiting St. Francis is undoubtedly the area's most difficult, featuring the likes of Venice, Cathedral, Chaminade, Harvard-Westlake and, most notably, reigning CIF state champion Gardena Serra. It is a slate that features six different opponents from last year's regular season.
Of course, this is just St. Francis football at first glance.
Upon further review, the Golden Knights, despite significant and high-profile graduations, are a more experienced squad with more returning starters than the previous season's team, and it is a collection of players set on maintaining, if not exceeding, the success of a program that went 9-3 a year ago and advanced to the quarterfinal round of the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs.
"We are a school of tradition," said senior running back and linebacker Michael Melnick. "We aren't just doing it for the class of 2011.
"It's everything you've got, this is the finish line. How are you going to be remembered? I want to be able to look back at my high school experience and say I gave everything I had every Friday night."
That first Friday night comes tonight, when St. Francis hosts an Arcadia squad it has not lost to since 2007, as the loss in the annual opener against the Apaches began a disappointing 4-6 season for the Golden Knights. Since then, St. Francis improved to 6-5 in 2008 and culminated with last year's impressive 9-3 mark in which a seven-point loss to Alemany prevented it from winning the Mission League title and a first-round playoff win over Gahr was its first postseason victory since 2005.
"Every year we're progressing," Melnick said. "It's really fun to see how much we've grown going 4-6 to 9-3 last year."
Melnick, tabbed as the team's starting tailback, also returns as a starting outside linebacker. However, the biggest influx of returning starters and, subsequently, what is seen by many as the strength of the team comes on the offensive line. The Patrick Carroll-led unit has four returning starters anchoring the trenches.
"I can't remember a year where we returned four starters on the offensive line," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. "That's a great place to start."
Carroll, in his third year as a varsity starter after two All-Area campaigns, has garnered plenty of Division I college attention. He's also the captain of the line at left tackle and one of three team captains, along with Melnick and senior quarterback Brett Nelson.
"We're definitely confident," Carroll said of the offensive line. "We like having our names in the paper, but we can't get full of ourselves. We have to have that workman's approach — come in and punch the clock."
Opposite Carroll is senior right tackle Andrew Fujimoto, whose season as a starter last year was cut down by injury. Junior Joe Marrone will return as the left guard and junior Kristion Grbavac will make the switch from right guard to center. As the only new blood on the line, junior Zack George will take up the right guard spot, meaning the Golden Knights are likely to have three returning starters next season, as well.
Nelson, a left-hander who's a drop-back passer in contrast to the scrambling Posthuma, moves into the spotlight as the starting quarterback after learning Bonds' system as a junior backup. He'll have big shoes to fill as Posthuma led the prolific '09 offense with 33 total touchdowns.
"I think every year our offense gets formed around and adjusted to the quarterback and what his strengths are. Brett might surprise us and run for 100 yards a game," Bonds said. "He's a good manager of the offense. He picked things up very quickly and was a student of the game."
Nelson, a transfer from Loyola before his sophomore year, possesses a strong and accurate throw and appears ready to take the reins of the offense.
"I'm ready to perform, this is what I've been training to do for two years," Nelson said. "I feel like I'm gonna perform."
Nelson will have his share of options, including returning starter Ian Hamilton, a senior, two-way senior standout Ryan Jenkins, junior Christian Hess, senior Richie Maloof when he returns from a broken foot and senior tight end Keith Enterante.
"Anyone who gets the ball can pretty much make a big play," Nelson said.
Likely to be the biggest weapon in the receiving unit is junior Travis Talianko, who led the team with 52 catches, 859 yards and seven touchdowns last year. With the multitude of formations in the St. Francis offense, Talianko will likely be moved from the slot to wideout on both sides of the formation.
"We want to move Travis around a little bit," Bonds said.
In the backfield, Melnick will also move from a backup role to the leading role.
"Of course I'm nervous, but it's something I've been working for — it's my turn, it's my time," Melnick said. "Sure, I'm not Dietrich Riley, but I can make plays."
Melnick's likely to be more of a grinder than Riley, giving the Golden Knights more of a ball-control aspect on offense.
"He's gonna carry the bulk of the load," said Bonds of Melnick, who will be backed up by junior Austin De Los Santos. "Michael has some speed. He's a little deceiving. I think he's a guy that definitely needs to get into a rhythm and into the flow of the game."
Melnick is also a part of a linebacking corps that Bonds views as the strength of the defense.
Joining Melnick is fellow returning starter Ryan McAleenan, a junior, at the other outside spot, with junior Luke Anderson, who got playing time as a sophomore and will also be a short-yardage fullback, starting at middle linebacker in defensive coordinator Mark Gibbons' 4-3 defense.
"Our main strengths are just speed and aggressiveness," said Melnick of the linebackers. "We're running to the ball, everyone wants a piece."
Hamilton and De Los Santos could also get reps at linebacker, as Bonds said it's likely the deepest position on the team.
Just the opposite is the defensive backfield.
Jenkins, at cornerback, is a returning All-CIF selection along with Carroll and Talianko, but the injury to Maloof, another returning starter, has led to some question marks.
Talianko could see double duty at safety, with senior Ted Williams also in the mix, while the cornerback spot opposite Jenkins remains in question.
The defensive line could see junior Tyler Marona, senior Andrew Quintero and Marrone at the tackle spots, though Bonds and his staff are a bit reluctant to have Marrone go both ways all game. Bonds is particularly excited about the prospects of senior Michael Singelyn at defensive end opposite Enterante.
"He's just got a great motor," Bonds said of Singelyn. "We're excited about him. Not the biggest or strongest guy out there, but he just won't stop."
St. Francis would rather not stop at the quarterfinal round this season, either, as the team's 49-42 double-overtime loss to Palmdale to end last year still looms large, as does the aforementioned second-place Mission League finish to Alemany, which bested St. Francis, 13-7.
"We didn't finish and that's the thing about this team is we're gonna finish," said Carroll, in reference to the fact that Palmdale trailed the Golden Knights late by 14 points before rallying for the win. "We want to win a Mission League and a CIF title."
In its quest to accomplish those goals, St. Francis will do so with a changed nonleague schedule featuring City Section contender Venice, Foothill League contender West Ranch and a long trip to Paso Robles as changes to prior seasons' slates.
"The one thing we know about our nonleague schedule is we're gonna be ready for Mission League play," Bonds said.
After that, St. Francis returns to a six-team Mission League, a welcomed return according to the Golden Knights, as the four-team structure of past seasons made an off-day a season-ending loss with only two teams guaranteed to go to the postseason.
Alemany is gone, but Harvard-Westlake and Cathedral, both winning teams a season ago, enter the league along with Serra, which went 15-0 last season en route to a state title.
"We're gonna have to do a lot more teaching to our team, making [our team] aware of some of our new opponents," Bonds said. "I like the fact that it's a six-team league. If you have an off-night and lose a game, in that four-team league, that was it [in terms of playoff hopes].
"We knew we had our hands full with Alemany, we know we'll have our hands full with Serra. I'm excited about it and I think the kids are excited about it.
Indeed, some of the biggest names are gone and the schedule has changed drastically. But many of the crucial components of a turnaround season will return, and Bonds and his Golden Knights have the same goals and the same intentions of league and postseason triumph.
"That's the expectation that we compete for the Mission League title and we compete for the CIF title," Bonds said. "It takes a year like last year to kind of jump start the program. … Then you ride that wave, you just kind of snowball it."
Today vs. Arcadia, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 17 at Crescenta Valley, 7 p.m.
Sept. 24 vs. Venice, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 1 at West Ranch, 7 p.m.
Oct. 8 at Paso Robles, 7 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Serra, 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 22 vs. Chaminade 7:30 p.m.*
Oct. 29 vs. St. Paul, 7:30 p.m.*
Nov. 5 at Cathedral, 7 p.m.*
Nov. 12 at Harvard-Westlake, 7 p.m.*
*denotes Mission League game