LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Failure to score in the second half of Saturday night's 41-14 Mission League-opening loss to visiting Gardena Serra High ultimately doomed the St. Francis football team.
But a big play within the final seconds of the first half loomed as large as any in the Golden Knights losing their grip on what they had been able to turn into a tight game in the second quarter.
Having closed the gap with the CIF Southern Section Western Division top-ranked Cavaliers to 20-14 at the 3:27 mark of the second quarter after falling behind by three scores inside of the first 16 minutes, St. Francis (3-3) got burned on a post route for a 35-yard touchdown with just 16.3 seconds remaining in the half.
"It was huge as far as the momentum of the game," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. "We had crawled back in at 20-14. …They got behind us on a post and made it 27-14 and got the momentum back and we knew we were kicking to them to open the second half, so that was tough."
The touchdown pass from Conner Preston (18 for 24 for 303 yards and three touchdowns) to George Farmer (nine catches for 214 yards and three scores) was the first of three unanswered Serra touchdowns to close out the game, as the Cavaliers (6-0) would finish off their opening drive of the third quarter with a Preston-to-Farmer 25-yard scoring connection to take a commanding 34-14 lead.
With lead running backs Michael Melnick (neck) and Austin De Los Santos (groin) both out with injuries and left tackle Patrick Carroll missing his third straight game with a knee injury, the Golden Knights' rushing game was nonexistent.
Travonta Herod made his first start in the backfield for St. Francis, but was only called on five times and finished with four yards on the ground, with quarterback Brett Nelson completing 22 of 36 pass attempts for 242 yards.
St. Francis' four second-half possessions ended in two straight failed attempts to convert on fourth down in Serra territory, an interception and a punt.
"Patrick is huge to our offense," Bonds said. "He makes all our line-of-scrimmage calls with our pass protection.
"When you take your three-year returning starter out at your most important spot, you're gonna feel it."
For one five-minute stretch of the second quarter, St. Francis played well enough to make it a game.
Raul Castillo put a bone-jarring hit on Farmer after a catch and caused a fumble, which Ryan McAleenan recovered at the Serra 33-yard line and returned to the nine.
Nelson got St. Francis on the board with a one-yard keeper at the 7:00 mark.
Then, a Joey Dowling sack on third down helped the Golden Knights hold Serra to a three-and-out and a punt that gave St. Francis starting position at midfield. Christian Hess hauled in a13-yard scoring toss from Nelson to make it 20-14 with 3:27 to play in the half.
But the Golden Knights could never get out from under Serra's three unanswered scores to begin the game.
Serra scored on its opening drive on a four-yard run by Shaquille Richard and made it 13-0 at the 11:44 mark of the second quarter on a short pass from Preston to Farmer, who took it 82 yards up the left sideline for a touchdown.
St. Francis fumbled the ball away inside its own 20-yard line on a lateral attempt, leading to a 20-0 Serra lead on a 16-yard touchdown return by Patrick Wooten with 8:36 left in the first half.
"One of the things we said in our pregame and all week really was we need to hold on to the football on offense, we can't turn it over and we've got to eliminate giving up big plays," Bonds said. "We weren't able to accomplish either of those goals really."